Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid…
The above words are attributed to Albert Einstein, but the idea of tailoring the curriculum, as well as the teaching-learning process to suit the individual, has been around for centuries. The allegory, however, is not a perfect “fit” as it refers to a different species. Indeed, attempts to prove that certain racial and ethnic groups are genetically superior or inferior in intelligence or learning ability have not only been severely criticised, but such theories have fallen apart under scrutiny. However, the need to consider individual differences in the classroom while designing methodology or mode of assessment is vital, if we are to get the best out of human resources. Sadly, this need is not being recognised and the consequences are becoming increasingly dangerous, in terms of the future of our country.
To understand why schools fail to tap the full potential of every student, we need to think about what we actually end up doing in our schools. It is a fact that all students need to acquire a certain standard in both knowledge and skills, but teachers and educators must try to identify special interests, aptitudes, abilities and skills of each and every student. The trouble is that teachers are far too preoccupied preparing them for their board exams, which are forms of standardised tests. This preparation requires teachers to highlight students’ shortcomings and identify errors in their answers that are expected to be uniformly “correct”. Through this process, we are slowly and surely killing individuality, imagination and creativity. We are all busy “teaching to the test” so that we can boast about the perfect scores that our students have earned, and the media have a field day celebrating the toppers of the city and the country. If we stop to think we will realise that all we are doing, is churning out examination-ready students, whose real strengths have not been tapped. It is no wonder that our country hasn’t produced inventors and Nobel Prize winners in numbers. Moreover, Indians are frequently accused of copying plots of films and tunes of songs created by others, and the surfeit of “remakes” of songs and films is indicative of a famine of originality.
In order to understand the problem, let us first visit the need for standardisation. No matter how much standardised tests are criticised, we have to accept that they are necessary for ascertaining the minimum learning that is required in the different fields of knowledge. Standardisation is needed for benchmarking and for comparisons. But surely much needs to be done beyond this? We constantly speak of diversity and inclusivity, but we do not provide for different talents to bloom. From the early teen years till they are ready to leave school at 18, we put in every effort to cast all students in the same mould. So, for years, we have been stunting the intellectual growth of our young and suppressing their individual abilities because the exams have been made the sole goal of school education.
It is also time that the board exams are seen in proper perspective. The results of such an examination should merely indicate the level of learning that a student has achieved. The way these mass scale assessments are carried out each year and the alarmingly inflationary trend of marks, clearly indicate that individual abilities cannot be gauged through this “assembly line” exercise. However, standardised exams as mentioned, are useful for certain purposes. It is for the school to transact the curriculum in such a way that each and every child is offered a platform to nurture its interests and talents. We have observed over the years how bright, young and curious children are systematically transformed into glassy-eyed, intense “examination warriors” (to borrow our Prime Minister’s colourful, but unfortunate expression) the moment they enter secondary school. And now, the draft New Education Policy document proposes that “census examinations” will be additionally administered at the end of Classes 3, 5 and 8.
The purpose is to ensure that all primary school students have at least reached a particular standard. This measure is understandable, in view of the dismal findings of agencies such as Pratham, with regard to the actual learning levels of the country’s primary level students. The fear is that in our examination-addicted country, these additional examinations will bring about undue pressure on children to “perform”. The joy of learning will be the first casualty, while parents and teachers ensure that children fulfil their own aspirations by earning desirable scores. The mode of assessment should be far more creative.
The draft New Education Policy does have many refreshing features which bring hope that individual aptitudes will be recognised and that the current mode of assessment which encourages rote learning will be replaced by a system where the burden of content will be reduced and higher-order thinking will be promoted. The removal of rigid demarcations between the arts and the sciences will not place students in neat watertight compartments and talent will flourish with the removal of lines between curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. The idea of an individual student portfolio is excellent.
Nevertheless, we worry that in the absence of enough trained teachers the best of intentions will come to nought. Besides, we don’t feel sure that “flexibility” and “individualisation of curricula” in the form of a wider range of subjects and proposed free choice of each student as to when to take the subject-wise examination, will be implemented in every school for practical reasons of logistics, inadequate infrastructure and shortage of specialised teachers.
In a vast, diverse country like ours, it makes no sense to chase after uniformity. It is imperative that we provide for variety, for differences and for originality. We are indeed blessed with rich raw material: the fine minds of our children. Let us not waste these resources.