Thursday, December 4, 2014

Learning beyond textbooks / Disha Nawani

A few ‘toppers’ from some Delhi schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE)have asked the Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani to reintroduce the board examinations in Class 10. The main argument presented against the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system was that it did not prepare them for competitive exams such as the Joint Entrance Examinations for Indian Institutes of Technology and pre-medical exams. The students also demanded that content in the latest National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks be increased and reoriented towards clearing such exams.
Such grievances can be understood better if a perspective which regards schools as sites which select, eliminate and celebrate the high scores of a few meritorious students, who succeed by virtue of the social-cultural capital that they possess, is believed, as opposed to a view which regards schools as inclusive, egalitarian and just learning spaces. These demands also reflect a belief which equates ‘learning’ with ‘performing well’ in exams. To understand these concerns better, it is important to examine recent educational reforms initiated in India.
The much-awaited Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009, besides making education a fundamental right for children in the age group 6-14 years, also made it mandatory that “no child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education.” It also proposed “Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation of a child’s understanding of knowledge and his or her ability to apply the same” and said, “no child shall be required to pass any board examination till completion of elementary education.”
While these provisions were to be applicable to all schools in the country, the CBSE made the Class 10 board exam optional for those students who wanted to continue studying in the same school. However, all students, including those who opted for CCE, would still have a choice to take the on-demand exam. This was in keeping with the recommendation of the National Focus Group Position Paper on Examination Reforms, National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005.
Providing equal opportunities
In a country which is still struggling to universalise elementary education, the dropout rate increases while moving up the educational ladder. In view of this, the purpose behind the ‘no detention’ policy was to give all children, especially the disadvantaged, equal opportunities to complete elementary schooling.
The CCE similarly was a result of several years of deliberation and reflection. It sought to bring reforms in the traditional system of evaluation, which had a written exam at the end of the academic term, placing children under enormous stress. The nature of this exam was such that it essentially tested students’ skills to memorise and reproduce textbook content, which in most cases presented disjointed information and facts as ‘ultimate truth,’ with little relationship with children’s experiences. The CCE on the other hand proposed a school-based, teacher-conducted continuous assessment, which would extend beyond the cognitive domain, and therefore serve as a tool for diagnosis and further learning. The idea underlying CCE was to integrate assessment with teaching-learning, so that it would seamlessly be woven with pedagogic processes, both inside and outside the classrooms. This marked a significant shift from an exam-centric system which dictated not just the way students approached learning but also determined the ‘worth’ of knowledge.
Despite the child-centred focus and enthusiasm with which these reforms were introduced, they were not only received uncritically, but viewed with scepticism as well. In 2012, the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) constituted a subcommittee for assessment and evaluation of CCE in the context of the ‘no detention’ provision of the RTE. The committee, which was headed by former Education Minister of Haryana, Geeta Bhukkal, pointed out in its report several limitations in the implementation of these provisions, placing them in the context of declining learning levels of children and migration of children towards private schools. The committee (not unanimously though) recommended implementation of ‘no detention’ in a phased manner, and reiterated the need to link assessment of learning outcomes with promotion of students to the next class beyond Grade 5. The committee also said that ‘no detention’ was often misunderstood as ‘no assessments’ or ‘no relevance of assessment’ and therefore adversely affected the drive to perform, as the policy seemed to indicate that performance did not matter.
It is important to ascertain the location and validity of such concerns. Both the CCE and the ‘no detention’ policy were meant to address the needs of especially those learners who are either disadvantageously placed or those who get pushed out of the school system with a low self-esteem, because of the lopsided view of learning which celebrates cramming of textbooks in examinations. The projection of such issues appearing in national dailies mistakes the concerns of a bunch of high scoring students from a few elite schools from a metropolitan city as being representative of all the student voices in the country. The aspirations of such students, which is to crack the prestigious engineering and medical exams straight after school, is sharply different from millions of those aspiring to simply survive in the system. It is this view of equating ‘performance in exams’ with ‘learning’ that the NCF 2005, and before that the Yashpal Committee report, tried to address by differentiating between learning and knowledge, and reiterating the need to view learning beyond textbooks. In line with this vision, the new textbooks developed by NCERT, post NCF 2005, recognised the agency of the learner, emphasised a constructivist understanding of knowledge and learning, and endeavoured to make learning more meaningful by presenting domain-specific perspectives by which children could relate to textbook content and make sense of the world around them.
Addressing challenges
Having said that, it also does not mean that the ‘no detention’ policy and CCE should not be examined critically. However, it may not be legitimate to expect them alone to bring about significant educational reform, ignoring the hugely deficit learning environments in which most schools exist, and also the challenging circumstances in which most children learn. The CCE, which is conceptualised differently and is being implemented by almost all States, suffers from several limitations both at the level of ‘design’ and ‘implementation,’ besides other school-related challenges such as inadequate teachers, absent/irregular students, huge pupil-teacher ratios and lack of basic infrastructural facilities. Similarly, the biggest challenge that the ‘no detention’ policy faces is the need to address learning gaps and suitably equip children with grade-appropriate competencies. There is also a problem when one associates CCE and the ‘no detention’ policy with ‘no assessment,’ equates absence of board exams with absence of learning, and confuses the achievement of educational objective with the success and glory of a minuscule minority over the ignominy of several thousands of students who are mercilessly pushed out of the formal school system.
India has witnessed some very significant developments in the education sector in the last decade — a long-pending landmark RTE, an NCF which brought the child to the forefront and linked the problems of quality of education with children’s experiences in schools, reforms in assessment, and strictures against use of corporal punishment. These need to be seen in perspective rather than being viewed in isolation. Rather than dismissing them in haste, the challenges confronting their implementation need to be identified, and mechanisms to support them need to be evolved.

(Disha Nawani is associate professor, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)



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