Kapil Sibal and the examination debate...barking up the wrong tree?

The exams results are out and each and every school worth its salt, pepper and sugar are proudly advertising the jaw dropping performances of their worthy students - 100% passes with more than 50% of its students securing not less than 90% marks in all subjects - maths, sciences, social sciences, languages and many securing centums (sic). The average pass percentages in most of the private schools in Tamil nadu and Karnataka let it be those affiliated to numerous state boards, cbse, icse hovers somewhere between 70-80%! Coming to my own bunch of students and their performance in social sciences - well the results left me breathless!
Students who barely managed to figure in the 50% bracket on an average and who had tremendous difficulty in distinguishing between the two great wars, between Gandhi and Garibaldi, Mandela and Mussolini happily cracked the board paper with 80%!!! There seemed to be no bearing or correlation between the assessment/evaluation that I and my colleagues after spending hours in teaching/coaching with the 'indifferent', 'challenged' 'weak' students had carried out, to the kind of percentages obtained by them based on the evaluation done by the high and mighty "examination/education board". (In the passing I should also note that the "bright" students "shone" in the latter evaluation as well.) What is amusing in this context is how often may of our worthy opinion makers use these 'marks' (results) to make passionate espousals for privatization of education. For, compared to government schools results, the private schools produce numbers that certainly make a better copy. This in the view of the LPG (liberalization, privatization and globalization) votaries reflect better quality of teaching and learning. But only the naive will see any merit in these marks and the farcical examinations that bring forth these magical numbers. Indeed it is truly a magic! These marks hardly reflect any learning and understanding ability of a child and at best only suggests a child's simplistic literacy and memorization ability!

Exams and tests as we have it, and particularly the different board exams, have so colonized the teaching/learning process that no learning and no honest evaluation of learning is ever going to be possible in this country. And if at all any learning that transpires despite such examinations with its emphasis on ensuring scores rather than testing any understanding, it will be purely coincidental, accidental and incidental! These exams reflect no genuine understanding but yet end up putting tremendous pressure on everyone connected with schools, not just kids but even teachers and parents. So the incumbent education minister Kapil Sibal has stirred a hornet's nest by calling for an end to Class X board exams for schools affiliated to CBSE. But are we just looking at the end of public exams or are we looking at end of exams in all its totality where exams just like corporal punishments will be banned and where schools and teachers who conduct these exams will be penalized??!!

Are exams intrinsically horrendous and flawed? What is it that really puts pressure on the kids? Is it the exam itself or much rather the kind of exam papers we have in the country and also the kind of evaluation norms that we have in this country? I would like to imagine and argue that it is the latter which is indeed stressing and traumatizing the students. For doing away with exams at many levels would also mean doing away with learning itself.

When it comes to history, let it be ICSE or Tamil Nadu stateboard exams (CBSE of the lot is perhaps the most progressive but will come to that in a while) the curriculum focus is entirely on cramming tons of information. The texts carry little analysis or reasoning. And likewise in exams again there is very little test of reasoning or application. Teaching of history itself leaves very little room for any of the above to transpire. Lot hinges on how much you cram, memorize and how well you are able to reproduce in the exams which undoubtedly can be stressful. For so much of your mind is taxed in this process than when one is trying to use reasoning, analysis and application. (let me also add here that memorization in itself is not as horrendous a thing as made out to be for it is also a skill which has its relevance and place as long as we do not make it the only skill to be tested)

Having examinations to merely test one's rote 'learning' ability is something that even the government and state educational boards finds it hard to convince itself, leave alone those who fault such a flawed criteria for evaluating a child's understanding. But the powers that be rather than look at a total overhaul of the curriculum and schooling in India have sought to address this problem in a very ingenious and ludicrous fashion.

Now whatever the child writes in the examination paper, even if it has only slim and marginal bearing to the question, even if the answer is a travesty, full of factual errors of names, dates and events ...in other words whatever howler is written, which by rights an evaluator should just score out, even such responses is deemed to be worthy of been given certain weightage i.e. marks! Evaluation benchmarks have been so diluted that only perhaps when a child gives a blank page for its answers that a child can fail these board exams. This explains how some of my students, who like I said cannot really figure out (actually did not care and at many levels it was i who failed to get them interested in history) if Hitler was connected to first world war or second and whether Russian revolution preceded French or did Germany fight against the Chinese or was it the Japs? - managed to do 'exceedingly well'.

For all the inane details that a child has to cram (without figuring out the larger picture, the hows and whys and not just the what, where and whens) which no doubt is frustrating and traumatizing, the board exams offer this sop and assurance of such sloppy evaluation which ensure higher pass percentages. This in the end settles the issue!

CBSE was saddled with the the new NCERT history books and these books, like I have always maintained does not lend itself to easy grasp i.e. memorization. Lot of plodding is required both by the student and teacher and indeed there is no such thing as correct answers but lot of reasoning and analysis i.e. understanding, is needed to figure out the lessons in these books. But not more than 20 marks are set aside for the whole history book (and 20 for geography, another 20 for political science and some 5 marks each for disaster management and economics and 20 marks for so called internal assessment ) in the final cbse exams and in the end a student is expected to attempt only handful of questions. Since so much of virtue is made of "open endededness" in progressive discourses on education that anything that a child writes passes of as great answer. And presto - the kid has scored a distinction!. So here again, while CBSE has a "progressive" tag, it again executes another farce in the name of an exam.

These ways we delude a child and ourselves into believing that s/he has grasped or mastered the subject and we thus make a mockery of exams and mockery of learning itself. The thing is each discipline has got its epistemological status, its ontology or to put it in other words, each subject has got its identity, integrity and character. But having such banal and inane question papers which pass off as "exams" so as to not to stress the students, it only insults the intrinsic merit, beauty and challenge each of the subjects or disciplines represent. It is of course not to suggest that only select few can master subjects. Every subject is learnable and doable but for that to happen we need to have a flexible and decentralized curriculum and more importantly a school faculty who are very resourceful, committed, passionate, creative, who know their discipline inside out and are able to use various pedagogical methods so that the vast demographic majority across social and economic divide are able to 'master the subject'.

Secondly the far greater premium that we put on academics only indicates at several senses the predilection of the Indian ethos of privileging the intellect and theory over praxis. Linking one's intelligence, competence, ability, skills to strictly academia only betrays a very brahmanical mindset. Ability to read and write with understanding is not something that comes easily to all (given the kind of resources children have, more so in government schools where they do not have resources worth naming) but yet the same child who cannot figure out the difference between Asoka and Akbar can figure out which mango tree is going to flower and which one is going to give better fruit and the same child can also figure out where he will get the best price for the mangoes in the market. But yet such a child may not find a job in the swanky retail chains like Big Bazaar and Reliance where blokes with 'better academic record' i.e. an MBA but with little 'native intelligence and hands on experience' will get great openings as purchase managers, marketing vice presidents etc etc. In India we make too much of a person's so called literateness and all our businessess and social systems go to promote and privilege, what I call 'cognitive-intellectual intelligence' - an intelligence in a very abstract sense than in a real or concrete sense. (Maybe using Howard Gardner's much quoted but perhaps less understood, multiple intelligences theory the logico-mathematical intelligence is favoured, nurtured and assessed over the musical, linguistic, inter-personal, bodily-kinesthetic etc) This craze for degrees only arises because everyone in India insists on an academic degree not ability!

Thirdly, thus in India, only professions which are padded to academia have economic value. How much money does a farmer, carpenter, a weaver make compared to techies and management graduates? True elsewhere in the world too white collared professionals make more but no where is the discrepancy between hard physical labour and "labour using intellect" as vast as it is in India and globalization at many levels has only widened the schism. Hence every farmer or carpenters dream is to ensure that their sons (and sometimes daughters as well) enter the hallowed precincts of Infosyss', TCSs, Wipross' making money hands over fist. The intelligences, skills involved in weaving, farming, carpentry can be best exhibited only when people are involved in the act of farming or weaving and not so much in an academic exam where it has little chance of being seen, recognized and valued. How can children coming from such backgrounds be expected to do well in exams where only one's literacy and memorization skills are tested? And it is therefore not surprising, which Prof Krishna Kumar laments, that in states like Madhya Pradesh, in its board exams, only 35% students manage to pass. For majority of these schools, to begin with, do not having a teaching faculty of an order that can help these students to acquire higher order learning and understanding ability - teachers who can give them the necessary linguistic skill to read, listen and articulate answers well. For as things stand intelligence and ability in India has to exist in black and white on a peice of paper and if that is what we really want, our opinion and policy makers do not seem to be taking appropriate measures save making adhoc and knee-jerk changes.

All these i argue is another upper caste bias for brains over brawns. In the past the Brahmins with their intellect dominated the society and were so privileged because of their "literate knowledge" (in this context Vedic texts) but now with the inroads democracy has made literacy is no longer an forte of the Brahmins alone but literacy is indeed seen as a means by which empowerment across the social and economic demographies is possible. But due to contemporary political and economic demands and pressures and the dominant discourses that we have on development and growth, literacy has been emptied of all genuine learning and understanding. Literacy in this sense can hardly be seen as either an enabler or empowerer.

But for true literacy skills to be provided, better schools are needed. Far reaching reforms of schools and schooling is called for. Here in my view to repeat, great talent should be helped to enter school teaching profession which will by far have the most positive impact on education and indeed the society.

Instead we just choose to tweak the system ...some here like the new Right to Education Bill which makes it mandatory for private schools to provide 25% of its seat free to poor kids and some there, like this proposal to end public exams. which in my view is so antithetical to learning. Exams then are not so much to undermine the child's self esteem but on the contrary to give the child the much needed confidence.

We no doubt need exam reforms where a child's comprehension can be genuinely tested and not mere ability to cram data or facts. So what are the ways out?

If different methods of evaluation are opted would exams still be a dirty word? Imagine exams in history where a child is given the freedom of chosing his/her method of evaluation? where one does not have series of banal or inane questions but just two or three essays? or where child can sketch out something of the wars or events which reflects certain understanding? or write a poem? But whatever be the form of evaluation preparing for an exam involves focus, concentration, priortizing and hard work. The latter makes rather, shall we say, discomforting demands and generally speaking the sensation of preparing for the exams is anything but pleasant. But then exams are as much an integral part of the learning process as much as lectures, demonstrations, activities, field trips etc to ensure the learning one has obtained is holistic and complete. And again just like none of the teaching methods can be regarded to be perfect and have its own limitations, examinations too are fraught with many weaknesses and failings. But all these cannot be a ground for removing exams and at the same time a person's ability to survive and survive well and make money should also not depend upon his/her academic record i.e. examination grades or marks. As an economy and society we should evolve and accept many unconventional methods of learning and also figuring out one's ability to perform a task.

To repeat exam reforms are needed and one would realize that for such reforms to happen so many changes are required in the curriculum - textbooks, resource materials and importantly resourceful teachers of ability, standing and credibility who can truly help children learn with understanding. For only then will the vast sections of the Indian society be able to compete with those traditionally privileged without compromising on the sanctity and inherent value of a discipline/subject.

All these one is afraid is a long long time coming.


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