Focus on learning-based outcomes in the Indian education system has finally found its rightful place in educational reform, it seems. Coupled with multiple initiatives founded on a skills-driven approach to school education, a new batch of educationists, influencers, and experts may finally help put an end to the obscene fascination we have long harboured for theoretical examinations.
This is to say that the Indian scholastic system which thrives on an early onset of anxiety, competitiveness, impossible targets, and parental pressure—derided around the world for these gaping flaws—has begun to recognise and revise its priorities along global lines. But, there is a long way to go.
Denoting due importance to areas besides merit
Evidence of India’s progressive pedagogical reforms does not begin and end with Delhi’s public schools surpassing its expensive privatised ones in academic performance, for the very first time in history.
As stupendous a feat that may be, there have been several other significant shifts to assessment-driven evaluation and greater importance being awarded to a pupil’s creative potential, especially in urban centres (at private schools) and specialised courses across the nation.
So who are these crusaders leading the change in bringing about the much-needed overhaul in India’s classrooms?
Well, it’s not just central and state boards of education, but a host of other stakeholders like non-profit organisations, education entrepreneurs, tech start-ups and the collaborative efforts among them all, which have come up with holistic solutions for several issues plaguing the system.
Physical health takes a front seat
Let’s look at the recent move by the CBSE board first, which made sports compulsory for all students studying in CBSE-affiliated schools from the first to the eighth standard starting April 2019.
This comes after their mandate on instituting a compulsory period for Health and Physical Education (HPE) for class nine to 12 students last year. The move had drawn positive response from popular figures in Indian sports including Sachin Tendulkar, for the renewed emphasis on sports, health, and outdoor activities.
The recent announcement would make HPE compulsory from Class 1 to 12, in a first.
The entire initiative is focussed on equipping children to develop a well-balanced lifestyle. Urban parents who face an enormous challenge in curbing children’s TV and internet habits are overjoyed by the move. Exercise as we all know, will also help tackle early onset of lifestyle health issues like diabetes and obesity among children. But the outcome and impact of this programme is heavily contingent upon the quality of physical training, infrastructure to support and sustain the programme, and the level of engagement by instructors in schools.
Ideally, sports should also provide the space for dialogue around physical ableism, healthy competition and toxic masculinity in games, and hopefully bridge the gender gap in participation. It is not clear yet if the new health curriculum will include sex education, which remains a core omission and is believed to be the reason behind social mores stemming from taboo around sex and complex body politics.
So, while making Yoga compulsory in school is well and good, but banning sex-ed is not desirable in the 21st century for a nation that grapples with indiscriminate violence against women’s bodies.
Concern about children’s health cannot dismiss their minds
Another is mental health awareness, which is unfortunately missing in education-related discussions at the national level and in classrooms. Yet, the highest number of suicides in India take place between the age of 15-29, according to the WHO.
This makes it important to equip our students with the right tools to deal with mental health issues right from their formative years. Delhi-based NGO You’re Wonderful Project offers peer counsels for those who struggle with suicidal thoughts in an effort to destigmatise mental health issues. It recently launched School Programme for Emotional Acceptance and Knowledge (SPEAK), its first school-level mental health awareness initiative in the national capital, which aims to conduct workshops, seminars and other therapeutic activities in over 500 schools over its first phase.
It is high time central and state boards give mental and sexual health the same amount of importance it connotes academics and sports.
This is an essential gap in the existing education system, where counselling sessions are often limited in their scope and powers, while bullying, victimisation, body image issues and domestic child abuse remain the top causes for failing mental health among pre-teens and adolescents. Parents, to this day, are reluctant to enrol their wards for therapy which reflects the taboo surrounding mental health issues while children from all socio-economic backgrounds suffer aplenty in silence due to the lack of dialogue and understanding.
Fostering the spirit of inquiry: Better than Quora
Yet another aspect of incomplete delivery of education happens in the sector of providing adequate guidance and support to children outside school. This is often missing since children in India are often the first-generation learners in their family, while others do not have the means to afford private tuition or access Wikipedia or Google to this day.
Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) has launched a helpline ‘First Question’ for children on National Science Day to answer their questions and feed their curiosity, from how the refrigerator works and how fans generate air to how clouds bring rain and why the sky is blue. The telephone helpline, active from 9.30 AM to 5.30 PM from Monday to Friday, will encourage children to raise Nature and Science based questions.
When asked about the rationale behind the initiative, Dr T V Sajeev, Principal Scientist at KFRI, “I had noticed when I take classes to students of various ages that the questions they ask at the of the lecture decreases drastically as their age increases. Small kids ask the maximum, college students very few. This has been observed for a long while now,” Dr Sajeev told Express Parenting, adding it is “perhaps because their questions remained unanswered when they were younger.”
Four KRFI research students, scientists and more than 150 external subject matter experts will answer the questions. “Up until yesterday we were managing about 30 to 35 calls, but over the last two days, that number has increased manifold. We answered almost 150 calls yesterday,” he says.
“The question is noted down, and within 10 minutes a call is made to the child with the answer, depending on their age level, says Dr Sajeev. KFRI also had helplines for farmers, ecology and agricultural enthusiasts in the past.
The spirit of inquiry is as fundamental to education as practice is to perfection, and it is vital for children to have easy access to all the information they need. Internet has made it easier but an interactive format like a telephone conversation can be more effective in rousing their inquisitiveness. This is turn can make them less intimidated to challenge accepted truths and deconstruct established and flawed structures instead of following them blindly.
Can we exclude certain disciplines to make space for others?
In his book The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, political scientist Andrew Hacker proposes replacing algebra II (polynomials and logarithms) and calculus in the high school and college curriculum with a practical course in statistics for citizenship. His views take off from a CUNY study which notes how these disciplines pose an impenetrable barrier for low-income students in their academic career and drive higher dropout rates.
Hacker, in his 2012 NYT op-ed, even wrote that students will probably learn little about concepts of proof that are relevant to their lives, such as legal proof, by studying abstract math proofs; they’d be better served by spending time studying how juries consider reasonable doubt.
Without teachers to help students embrace the conceptual understanding of mathematics, he admits, complex algebra remains a stumbling block. Countries like Singapore, for example, address this conceptual aspect from the beginning. Statistics can push students to address concepts behind math, like causality and effect size, more squarely.
Read our report on wise consumption of statistical figures in the age of misinformation here.
Another area that schools in India are failing in, is to teach students how to write, not just crammed answers, but personal and critical essays which will help them file Statement of Purposes (SOPs) during doctoral or internship applications. “Countries like Japan, the U.S., Singapore and so on focus on the writing ability of a child, and what is his/her thought process. But students in India lack writing skills,” an education expert tells The Hindu.
European schools encourage students to be involved in policymaking and national debates, doing much more than host Model United Nations (MUN). The New York Times recently spoke to Northern Irelanders on approaching the Brexit deadline without a deal in place; the video lends a kaleidoscopic view on a wide cross-section of people who will be affected by this decision which includes young students.
A conference to inform children what the political scenario is like, and how it is likely to affect their lives in the coming future, “Brexit and Young People: Can You Hear Us?” broaches difficult subjects like identity, peace, reconciliation, regional politics, citizenship, immigration, and mobility rights with Irish high school students.
Breeding leadership: Why it matters
Our yardstick for evaluation remains rote learning, and this does not do anyone any favours, especially if students are indeed the future of the nation. They must first be sufficiently and responsibly prepared to respond to the present.
Indian students still remain leagues behind their global counterparts in real life skills and necessary social values, like doing taxes, writing SoPs, participating in informed political debates, knowing their civil rights, putting up an art show, and having a healthy outlook on sex and gender. As long as the primary focus on academics continues, extra-curricular efforts, especially in the fine and performing arts, are often left for the student to cultivate on their own, leaving most children disillusioned with their choice of calling by the time they graduate.
In terms of input and infrastructure as well, our system is systematically designed to exclude children from marginalised and lower economic backgrounds from accessing quality education beyond a certain level. If this sounds awfully similar to the unfolding college admissions scam involving prominent wealthy Americans allegedly paying bribes to get their kids into elite universities, that is because it serves as a glowing testament to how higher education is universally rigged to benefit the privileged. Well, not exactly everywhere.
Unlike Scandinavian nations, higher education is not freely available to all those who wish to pursue it in most nations including India; on top of that, a large number of scholarships and grants have been slashed left, right and centre, especially in the last few years. But the growing obsolescence of India’s research sector is a whole other story.
The question is, when will holistic transformation of public and private education take place in India, where students and even professors are jailed for expressing dissent, and are continually taught historical fiction? The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), in fact, recently dropped three chapters from its Class 9 history textbook claiming overburdening of students. One of them deals with caste conflict and the struggle of the “untouchable” Nadar community, who now constitute a prolific business community, HCL’s Shiv Nadar being a notable name among them.
This comes at a time when our understanding of postcolonial caste and class systems need more representation and nuance. But will the needs, demands and opinions of India’s next generation be heard? Also, is the government ever going to grant them the space for active participation in uncomfortable discussions and make autonomous decisions for themselves?
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.