Friday, May 13, 2016

Adrift in school | Dev Lahiri

The silly season of the board examination results is once again upon us. Boards will vie with each other in doling out 90 per cent-plus to their candidates. Social, electronic and print media will overflow with congratulatory (and sometimes self- congratulatory) messages and interviews. Teachers will thump themselves on the back for their “outstanding results”. Schools will go ballistic advertising their “toppers”.
Yet behind the razzmatazz of this marks jamboree, lie some uncomfortable questions that need to be answered. First of all, what of those who did not make it to this elite club? What about those children, who, for reasons well beyond their control, are left struggling on the margins with mediocre or poor results — or even failure? Are they not entitled to a future?
How many of the teachers congratulating themselves would have identified and spent time with students struggling with some learning disability? How many teachers would even recognise the problem of a learning disability?
More fundamentally, how many schools would even admit any student identified as being so disadvantaged?
Let us not even begin to talk about the issue of other disabilities that thousands of our children suffer from. What kind of a culture are we evolving where the disadvantaged are ignored? I remember that when I started an “Assisted Learning Programme” in a boarding school that I headed in the early ’90s to help such students, one of my governors warned me against admitting “mentally retarded” children.
And what do these 90 per cents actually reflect? No one can deny that most students work very hard to achieve these results. The fact that they survive this joyless system is indeed a tribute to their resilience.
The fact, however, remains that the system is so hugely “content driven” that all that the marks reflect are a student’s ability to absorb and spew content, and the teacher’s ability to “teach to the test”. Have schools and teachers taught their students to make connections between what they have learnt in one discipline and what they have learnt in another? Between, say, math and music? Have they taught students to think creatively and critically, to work in teams, to assume leadership, to research and reference, to communicate effectively?
After all, these are the skills required in the real world. Have they excited their students about the business of learning? And I am not even touching upon values such as respect for others, empathy, integrity, gender sensitivity. Teachers, before you get carried away by your “success” please do not forget the steroid of the tuition market without which even that 90 per cent, flawed as it might be, would have remained a distant dream.
Let us not also overlook the reality of the manner in which the examinations are administered. Has anyone, for instance, done an audit of the examiners? After all, the examiners come from the pool of schoolteachers and I dare say that, by and large, that is not a very distinguished catchment area.
The reasons for this are manifold. Teaching, particularly schoolteaching, is not exactly a first choice career option for most. I once asked an assembly of parents in my school how many of them would encourage their son to be a schoolteacher or indeed their daughter to marry one. No marks for the correct answer!
The levels of motivation, not surprisingly, tend to be generally low. To compound the problem, teacher training is something that is largely ignored in our country. Promoters of schools, anxious for quick returns on investment, generally consider spending on teacher training a waste of precious resources.
It is worrisome that we have yet to create an institute with the same brand equity as an IIT or IIM. And ironically, it is the schoolteacher who prepares all the entrants for the IITs and IIMs and indeed for all other professions. It is also well-known that dishonesty is rampant in our examination centres. So how valid are these results?
The sad truth is that school in our country is less about “education” and more about “certification”. Where in any enlightened society is a child virtually “boxed in” as early as grade nine and forced into either “Commerce”, “Science” or god forbid “Humanities”? And never the three shall meet!
A child’s mind should be set free — free to explore and to discover the connections between all the beautiful, and indeed ugly, things he or she learns about this universe. In a very interesting article on the world-famous mathematician Ken Ono, in this paper (‘Prime Obsession’. The Indian Express, May 8) Amruta Lakhe quotes Ono on the relationship between him and his mentor Basil Gordon. “He was the Hardy in my life (a reference to the relationship between Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy). I couldn’t wait to start working on theorems but he didn’t let me anywhere near a math formula for months. We went biking, played the piano, and opened our minds to classical music.”
“Then on one of their expeditions”, Lakhe writes, “Ono was struck by the beauty of a particular sunset and mentioned it to Gordon. Gordon replied that Ono was now ready to do math.”
Unless our school education system, among other things, learns to open up the minds of our children to the fascinating universe they dwell in, it will never really impart an “education”, and will never really prepare them to be “weapons polished and keen” who will help build a new and more equitable and just world order.

The writer retired as principal of Welham Boys School, Dehradun.
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