The Telegraph carries an interesting article this day from the head of a leading traditional school in Kolkata. The article makes very good reading in today’s times when new-age efficient schools are clearly challenging the education being delivered by traditional schools. While I let you read the content yourself and arrive at your own conclusions, I do believe that the answers to all the various issues raised in the article are not going to be unfortunately available in the immediate context. Parents do want stress-free education (as a mother of a recent graduate from the school that the writer heads told me just yesterday) but they also want a career-direction and appropriate advise for their wards from the schools keeping in focus the aspirations of the family too. Unfortunately, the world over, parents do desire that their children reach the right centers of learning post the schooling and for that the focus on academics is indeed very important. It is even more frustrating for a student of a top school ending up in colleges that are just not right-brands and in sync with the brand of the school. The combination of offering stress-free education (read it as less academic and balanced with co-curriculars) and facilitating entry to right colleges (read it as high academic and less co-curriculars) is something which is going to divide the schools into two separate categories till our education system changes. Add to this the pressure for tutorials and coaching for entrance exams, eligibility tests and parental aspirations. Very few traditional schools are changing with times and I find them busiest when they have to take admissions and not when they have to prepare the students for the right careers. Career Counseling in several city schools is as good as absent and many confuse psychological counsellors to be career counsellors. Further the aptitude testing that is held too is unreliable in most cases. I can almost guarantee that if a student takes an aptitude testing from two vendors, he is likely to receive two different results. Why should this be… The aptitude testing mechanism too need tweaking in Indian context too.
The cartoon below is not from the article in The Telegraph but I found it very appropriate.
|As lists of ‘good schools’ grow, it is time to ask again what exactly makes for quality in school education, writes Devi Kar. The author is director, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta|
Much has been written and said about the nature of punishment meted out in schools. But nobody has seriously questioned the nature of awards and prizes that are handed out to students. For instance, the practice of awarding ‘good conduct’ prizes has always puzzled me. What exactly is meant by ‘good conduct’? How is it assessed or measured? Does it mean conforming, being obedient, being discreetly out of mischief and never contradicting authority? Can it possibly be accepted that only one student in an entire class has demonstrated good conduct in a given year?
The same argument holds for institutions. What is a good school? Lists and directories of ‘good schools’ abound, as do annual rankings of schools — usually based on the perception of the general public. A wide range of criteria is considered in these reckonings, but the irony is that we have not questioned or analysed the public perception of a ‘good school education’. Is it possible for a school to be delivering poor education although it is perceived to be ‘good’? Canefficient schooling be confused with effective schooling?
Promotional videos of different schools of repute invariably present the same set of images to the viewer — happy faces, neat lines, raised hands in the classroom and the Head engaged in modern-day camaraderie with students and colleagues. All the ingredients of a standard recipe are there for the world to see — a sparkling, clean environment, smiles all around, state-of-the-art facilities and the prominent display of public-examination ‘toppers’ on the honour roll board. What cannot be shown, however, are the real learning outcomes. After all, the school is a social space where learning is supposed to happen and surely we need to know whether, indeed, it is happening.
It can be argued, of course, that the purpose of a school is to fulfil a set of general expectations of the society in which it exists. What are these expectations? If we cut out the trimmings, we can safely conclude that most people want for their offspring a school education that will ensure the brightest of prospects — a prestigious status and, in the long run, a successful career. On a basic level, a good education is expected to be instrumental in landing lucrative jobs. The first requirement for these expectations is perceived to be super-excellent examination scores combined with active participation — if not competence — in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.
Schools, in turn, feel compelled to fulfil these expectations. They offer a variety of increasingly important non-academic activities to their students who participate in them with great zeal — not so much for their enjoyment or recreational value as for facilitating their future prospects. Besides, there is an increasing pressure on schools to offer coaching for competitive examinations. It appears strange, but there is a great demand for schools that allow students to absent themselves from their regular classes in order to be made ready for the competitive entrance examinations. A school’s worth goes up if its students perform well in these examinations.
It is true that while navigating the school journey, a student acquires a set of skills — physical, cerebral and social. In addition, the student learns to be involved in community service in a structured manner as Social Service is a compulsory component of the curriculum. So a school may hold up its mission and vision of ‘developing good citizens’ and take pride in the ‘holistic education’ it offers while society recognizes and admires the polish and smartness of the students it turns out with regularity.
But the burning question is whether the education acquired in such a school is ‘good education’. Is it fair to ask whether the successful students are still intellectually curious, and other uncomfortable questions like, are the students equipped to think things through, make independent choices, and express views and feelings? Do these students have the ability to stand up for their own rights and the will to do so for those of others? Can the students critically analyse political and other issues in the media? After all, in our democracy, an 18-year-old has the right to vote.
Let us consider the first question of intellectual curiosity. Of late, professors have been lamenting that even the top students show no interest in knowing or learning anything that is not immediately required or anything that is perceived to be irrelevant or not potentially useful. If a high-school student is asked why general awareness or general knowledge is required, the standard reply is, “In order to face the competition.” The problem lies in this answer. Education is most certainly not about learning to outdo others but to make the most of one’s potential in terms of ‘cognitive, emotional and creative capacities’. Adhering to a strict and narrow script will not help students to achieve this. Both utilitarian and humanistic elements are important in education as is the conscious development of the imaginative and creative powers.
Meanwhile, schools are becoming more like factories as they lose their own individual identity while catering to the demands of society. Students are becoming more and more dependent on tutorial centres while the mainstream teaching population dwindles fast. The saving grace is that in almost every school — good, bad or indifferent — there are some teachers left who inspire, lift and keep the excitement of learning alive.
There are other questions about the readiness to step into the world of higher learning. It is being said that the new college entrant today is able to voice opinions but is not able to justify them in a reasoned manner. In their schools, the students who have been identified as promising public speakers are trained to speak at structured public debates. But making scintillating public speeches is quite different from arguing rationally on a daily basis in real life. Next, we come to the essential tools of teaching and learning — reading and writing skills. Most students do not even bother to read the set text — forget outside-of-syllabus or reference books. They see no point in wasting their time. Ready-made answers to expected questions on the text serve their purpose and their parents pay good money to tutors for this convenient service. So, most students do not make their own notes anymore.
Worse, they have learned to answer but not to question, as teachers find it more practical to ‘teach to the text and test’. Parents are happy as long as the test scores are satisfactory. Forgotten or ignored are the four pillars of education — learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be. Forgotten, too, are the joys of learning. The time is indeed ripe for serious introspection about what is meant by a ‘good education’.
The question of what exactly constitutes ‘quality’ in school education — and how it can be measured — is being currently investigated in depth, for the first time in India. The project, which entails the study of a large number of diverse institutions, has been carried out once and will be repeated at least two more times. Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, the economist who visited our city recently, observes, “It is harder to learn the quality production function than any other production function. It is easy to vary inputs in a factory and observe changes — in a school it is harder to do.” But those responsible for the study are hoping, among other things, that this attempt will open up a nation-wide dialogue between different stakeholders and people with different views on quality education. It is doubtful whether the results of a study will compel society to review its beliefs about quality education.
Nevertheless, we need to pause a while to reflect on the meaning of a ‘good education’. And we may just realize the urgency to shift gear and change direction for the sake of our children.