Which of the following is true: nearly 10 per cent of Class 4 students in top urban Indian schools believe that Mahatma Gandhi is alive. In Tamil Nadu, only 15 per cent students in the 15-year age group are skilled in maths. About three-fourths of Class 3 students in rural India can’t solve two-digit subtraction problems.
All true. How did you score?
Three recent reports—Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), the Programme For International Students Assessment (PISA) and the Quality Education Study (QES) by Wipro and Educational Initiatives—serve a gloomy, telling reality check, busting some long-held stereotypes about the strengths of Indian students. The smart Indian techie, the world-beating Indian students at spelling bee contests and math quizzes, the brainy, high-IQ geniuses at Ivy League colleges, are they all a thing of the past? The new breed seem to portend a horrifying tale: not only are our kids not getting any smarter, they actually seem to know less than their peers from a few years ago.
The issues are not new, but the paradox looms larger than ever. India has one of the world’s youngest populations, it is poised to become the knowledge engine of the world to China’s manufacturing mettle—this is what we are led to believe. But can the new generation fill those shoes? These findings impart a new urgency and depth to our understanding of India’s education crisis. “The average Indian kid has greater ambition, greater access to information, greater aspiration and is far more secure,” says Giri Balasubramanium, founder, Greycaps, a quizzing company. But our classrooms have failed to match up to that challenge, or channel that swelling ambition. “We don’t have a clear vision as far as education is concerned. Rote learning continues to thrive in our best schools, and even while we’re trying out new methods of teaching, it’s like tasting new flavours, not changing anything fundamentally,” says Maya Menon.
That may not seem like such a good idea anymore. After all, top private schools tested by the QES have revealed a serious lack of basic skills in students, pointing towards a sociological shift in attitudes towards learning. “The real culprit for the decline in learning are changes in lifestyle, where entertainment has taken the space of education,” says IIT computer science professor Sanjiva Prasad. India’s traditional urban middle-class ethos of a single-minded approach to academics is under threat with the post-liberalisation generation of parents and their growing children, say some sociologists. “Schooling is not at the centre of their lives. They have so many distractions—social gaming, social networking, hanging out with friends—and it all takes away from learning,” says sociologist Meenakshi Thapan. But all the networking with the outside world has not helped in changing some deep-seated prejudices. According to the QES findings, the societal biases of children in private schools in the metros are rather glaring. For example, nearly half of Class 8 students in top private schools in the cities feel that girls needn’t go to school. Says Vyjayanthi Sankar of the Ahmedabad-based Educational Initiatives, who conducted the QES with Wipro, “Unless we inspire our kids to think on their own, they won’t think around these biases, and society is not going to get better.”
Illusional summits A class in the open at a government school in Mandi district, Himachal Pradesh. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
That can come only with a complete overhaul in how we teach. For instance, the PISA research finds that the Indian curriculum covers more topics, compared to, say, the UK or Australian syllabus, which provides students with a broad learning base, so they are able to respond well to questions where they need to retrieve information. But where they have to interpret and integrate, most Indian students find it a challenge. “This has an impact on the quality of human resource. Students may get employed easily, but what about the quality?” asks Ratna Dhamija, manager, Australian Council for Educational Research in India, which conducts the PISA test. That’s a serious concern, particularly for the future of maths and science. Is the land of C.V. Raman and Srinivas Ramanujan drying up? “The power of education has increased,” says Anand Kumar of the well-known IIT coaching centre Super 30 in Patna, “but knowledge levels have dropped,” he says. So much so that he has had to double the number of classes at his institute in the last year, from three days a week to six. “Today’s students have to work twice as hard, as their basics in subjects like mathematics aren’t strong enough.”
Education in half measure Children at a primary government school on the outskirts of Calcutta. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)
So, yes, we are losing the edge in pure sciences and mathematics, and academicians also see a decline in cutting-edge research in India. In 2010, China published about 10 lakh scientific papers whereas India could muster up only about two lakh. “Schools are pushing a large number of students to take entrance exams for professional schools. As a result, students are not motivated to pursue academic work in mathematics and the sciences. They enter these fields as an alternative when they fail to get into the professional schools,” says Varadhan. Even at professional schools, however, the levels of learning are slipping. At IIT, for instance, there is a lot of variability in the top 150-200 ranking candidates. “A small number is outstanding, but others struggle to pass the basic math and computing courses, and there is a general decline in language, writing and proof skills over the last 10 years,” says Prasad.
Apropos your piece It’s Plain Murder, By Rote (Feb 13), I had a visitor, Jaeseaninge, who is French and works at one of the ‘Steiner’ schools in France. Steiner nurtures virtues generally unheard of in Indian schools. It was a delight listening to her. To quote: “I came to India seven years ago as a tourist. I visited Rajasthan, where I went for an enjoyable camel safari. When I came back, I introduced the camel driver to my 20-year-old daughter. He was a young man who belonged to the Bhil tribe. Totally illiterate. A tribe which did not believe in building homes. They used sticks to make temporary beds. My daughter said, ‘This is the man I want to marry.’ And marry him she did! She had a baby at the end of the year. I brought her to France for childbirth. She insisted on taking her baby back with her to India. I have just visited her and her family.” She also asked me about Laurie Baker-type buildings in our school. I told her 40 masons and coolies could work on concreting in Baker style tomorrow. “Have you invited parents to come and help? I’d have done that in our Steiner school.” My mouth fell open! No answers! One day when we can give parents an open invitation to come and help us with harvesting paddy in the school field; or help with a cultural programme; or help in building, levelling and painting programmes, India’s schools would be a lot more vivacious and less dull than the rote learning centres they now are.
Mary Roy, Pallikoodam, Kottayam
There was time when a 10th-class pass could write a good letter and be an expert accountant in small businesses thriving in small-town India. Their not-quite-fanciful education came from very unfashionable schools back then. Now we have international schools with air-conditioned classrooms teaching international syllabi using PowerPoint and customised software. Being international, naturally they forget to teach who Mahatma Gandhi is. In my class of 40 students, to the question—“How many of you have seen Attenborough’s Gandhi?”—I got just one ‘yes’, from a German national! Now we don’t just teach. We make the students all-round personalities. In that hurry to do something different, what schools have lost is academic atmosphere.
Abraham Eapen, Ivy League Academy, Hyderabad
In India, we go to school or college to get a certificate or degree, not to get educated. The present curriculum is hopelessly out of sync with the needs of a tech-savvy, internet-exposed generation. It is a telling commentary on the state of affairs that those who survive the school/college ordeal and get admitted to elite professional institutions do so by dint of their own hard work, private tuitions and joining expensive tutorials...their alma mater has hardly any role in their success. One solution: make teaching a sought after, remunerative profession with tough qualifying standards and incentives if their wards make it to competitive examinations.
Vinod Gangadharan, Bangalore
For every teacher who teaches students to cram, there is a great teacher who teaches them to create. As a history lecturer said recently at our Class 12 farewell, a great English teacher can coax Vikram Seths and Amitava Ghoshs out of students. This report is skewed. The cbse is a prison we do work under, but no one says don’t create, don’t ignite, and forget about being a catalyst.
Uma Nair, English Coordinator, Don Bosco, Alaknanda, New Delhi
As per 2008-2010 government estimates for primary education, the current average per child expenditure is Rs 6,314. The budget for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan swelled by almost three times in five years to Rs 21,000 crore in 2011. Yet this higher spending on education is not bringing in the expected results, as these surveys show.
Shamael Jafri, Lakhimpur Kheri
The root of all these problems is the absolutely dismal record of government spending on primary education in India. It is no good subsidising elite universities like IITs while throttling our primary and secondary schools. The families of more than an overwhelming majority of children here don’t have the luxury of sending their children to private schools. They need to make do with the state schooling system which, needless to say, is a cruel joke.
Pankaj Vaishnavi, London
A society whose children cannot figure out algebra or Newton’s law is not half as worrying as its children lacking civic, citizenship and social awareness. But then in a country where mathematics and science are perceived to be the most valued and relevant, to the exclusion of all else, and where teachers themselves are barely able to ensure comprehensive learning beyond preparing them for competitive exams, one can imagine the very dismal state of social science teaching. Ergo, no surprise when the Wipro survey reports that many kids feel girls need not go to school (and immigrants and outsiders have to conform to a state’s dominant culture). Secondly, the component to ensure empathetic learning as against the ability to be informed—which the likes of Giri Balasubramaniam equates with learning and makes a case for quiz contests, out of which he seems to make a fortune—depends on equally empathetic teachers. But our school-teachers are doing a job no one else wants to do. The emotionally and intellectually demanding profession has been proletarianised and feminised (in an uncreative sense).
R.S. Krishna, Hosur
My experience as a teacher tells me that:
1.The teachers are unable to connect whatever they teach to real life
2. The teacher does not identify the skills each child must have.
3. They just teach to simly complete the syllabus
4. They just do not bother to know if the children have understood what they have taught.
5. Their evaluation technique is faulty
6. They don't plan out what to teach and how to teach
7. There is an urgent need to find out why such a thing is happenning. It may be due to overcrowded classes, lack of teaching tools and lack of training etc etc
I KNOW that PISA conducted the test and that the media reported it on its headlines.
IF YOU CANT UNDERSTAND ENGLISH, the media should not be publishing findings like these which are not properly conducted and reach unreasonable conclusions.
If you had bothered to read and understand the article, it would have dawned upon you that it is NOT the media which tested the students. The tests in question were conducted by organisations like PISA, Pratham and Education Initiatives, which specialise in such surveys. Writing trash and jumping to wrong conclusions without even bothering to read things properly is a classic symptom of dimwittedness. I'm sorry if you were ever discriminated against, but dimwitted misogynists usually end up suffering that fate, especially ones who cannot read properly.
Nataraj, your post reminds one, that aging does not necessarily make one brighter. Especially older males like you, who invariably turn out to be misandrists too.
Boys today face far much discrimination and even violence, thanks to the stereotyping by the media. Girls are the preferred species - whether in schools, colleges or employment.
Please dont pontificate on your theories about students these days being 'dimwits'. As for tests the media uses ( probably to 'prove the dimwitted ness' of these students), I doubt you can understand that these so-called 'tests' are not reliable.
But the point is that ALL generations, including yours ( using specious 'findings' ), universally think all other generations are dimwits.
The only secure jobs during the 1990s were the government ones. The private sector never had secure jobs even then. At least nowadays economic liberalistion has ensured that there are plenty of opportunities even for people who lose their jobs. It wasn't so in the 1990s. I doubt you ever existed during those times, so don't lecture about something you don't have a clue about. This, along with a near Talibanic hatred and fear of women, are the biggest signs of dimwittedness. I rest my case.
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