I am Rajaram. I am working in the field of education for the underprivileged in India for the last several years. I have been doing this as a part of Asha for Education. I used to work as a software engineer. But for the last 4+ years I have been volunteering full-time for this cause.
Asha for Education has been working with the goal of education for the underpriviledged in India. While education has a significant value for the individual, Asha also sees education as a catalyst for social change. I have been with the Asha Chennai chapter since its inception in 2002. Early in our chapter’s life, we decided that the best way for us to work towards the mission of Asha was to work with government schools. We believe that the emphasis of education needs to be real understanding and confidence in using the concepts learnt in real life. Rote learning is a malaise in Indian education system that needs to be eliminated. These changes have to start bottom up and therefore we decided we will mostly work with primary schools.
Asha Chennai is currently supporting about 100 government schools spread across Tamilnadu. I am involved personally in our efforts at all these schools. We support the schools by providing teachers where required and also learning teaching materials. In recent years we have been looking at ways to employ technology to enhance education at all these schools and beyond.
Reasons for this Blog
The blog would provide me a platform to explain and develop my thoughts related to these efforts. We have made conscious choices in various aspects of our functioning starting from why we have chosen to work with government schools to how to use technology for education at a primary school level. The blog provides me an opportunity to explain these choices.
I see a vast disconnect between the well-educated Indian elite and its vast majorities. The day-to-day lived experience of the vast majority in India is completely unfamiliar to the educated elite. This applies to education as much as it applies in say health-care, commute, work, life at home etc. I hope to provide some information to bridge this gap at least in the field of education through this blog.
My hope is also that this blog helps me connect with others who are interested in this area so that ideas can be shared. Informed people who want to sincerely make a difference to the world are hard to come by. If I find and connect to a few such people through this blog, it would have more than served its purpose.
Finally I have chosen the path to volunteer in this effort full-time. While there are broader moral or philosophical reasons for this choice, it is also derived from the immediate joy I get when seeing caring teachers doing their job with dedication and also to see other organisations doing wonderful work in their own spheres. The blog will also provide me a space to showcase such excellent work and the simple pleasures that I encounter in doing this work.
I have mostly been working with government schools in Tamilnadu. I have worked with schools both in Chennai city and in rural areas of Thiruvallur, Thoothukudi, Viluppuram, Thiruvannamalai and Kanchipuram districts. I often find a lot of people misinformed about these schools including sometimes the teachers who teach there and parents who send their children there.
People often are under the mistaken notion that government teachers are paid a small amount compared to private school teachers. Contrary to that Government teachers in Tamilnadu and in most of the states get a much higher salary than their counter-parts in private schools. Starting salary for a government teacher in a primary school who needs to have completed just a 12th standard with DTEd (Diploma in Teacher Education), is upwards of Rs 20,000 per month. A Head Mistress at a primary school with 15 years of experience will be making upwards of Rs 40,000 per month. Government job comes with its own perks like permanent employment, leave, good benefits etc. In comparison a new teacher in a rural private school makes between Rs 3000 and Rs 8000 per month with no further benefits or job security. Even experienced teachers will rarely make upwards of Rs 20,000. Even in urban areas, other than the top schools most of the salaries will not cross Rs 20,000.
Note the central pay scale is even higher than this. I assume teachers at Kendriya Vidhyalayas and Navodaya schools make the central pay scale. This will be even higher than the state government pay scale for teachers.
There is an assumption that the teachers at private schools are better qualified than the government teachers. This may have been true to some extent before 2010. Around that time most state governments started implementing TET (Teacher Eligibility Test). Law now forces the state governments to hire the top ranking candidates from their respective state TET exams. Further the TET exam in Tamilnadu is not completely based on the Tamilnadu state board textbooks and reasonably tests their understanding of the subjects.
To give you a perspective, in 2017 about 2.5 Lakhs and 5 Lakhs candidates appeared for the TN TET Paper-I and Paper-II exams respectively. Note Paper-I is for Primary school teachers (with 12th and DTEd) and Paper-II is for middle school teachers (with Bachelors degree and BEd). The number of candidates who cleared the TET and thus qualified for a government teacher posting was only in the order of 10000 to 20000 in both papers. The actual appointments were a lot fewer. I heard only about 2000 teachers were appointed. I have seen many teachers from private schools attempting this exam.
Thus these days the government is able to hire the best qualified teachers for its schools. Also private schools often appoint teachers without the required qualifications. This just cannot happen in the government schools.
Learning Levels of Students
It is often taken as a given that children studying in government schools learn less than those in private schools. People arrive at this conclusion partly because of performance in the board exams where private schools do better. I am not going to go into the quality of board exams and rote learning at this point. Another circular reasoning people employ is that, if people are paying to put their children in private schools, they must be better right?
Thankfully we have a little better data to go by these days. Pratham has been conducting ASER a rural survey of education for children in the 5 to 14 age group. The survey does not go to schools but is based on households in the villages. This eliminates potential for over or under representation of either private or government school children. There isn’t any scope for criticism that good schools were not chosen or bad schools were for either private or government categories. It also doesn’t do the apples to oranges comparison of rural government school children with urban private school children.
The survey has been finding that the government school children in Tamilnadu have been performing slightly better than private school children. You can see the 2018 result for Tamilnadu here. At the bottom of the 3rd and 4th pages you can see tables comparing children learning by school type. Even in other states like Maharashtra, Karnataka etc., the government school children are doing as well as or better than private school children.
This is actually a remarkable result for many reasons:
Children of richer and thus more educated parents go more often to private schools. Clearly the poorest people cannot afford to send their children to private schools.
Often a child is sent to a private school in their first standard. If the child is unable to do well in studies, the parents move them to the government school. Government school teachers often complain about children joining 3rd, 4th or higher classes who dont even know the alphabets and numbers.
Government schools cannot refuse admission to any child. Even children with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism, blindness, other physical handicaps etc. are admitted in government schools. This clearly must lower the average performance of the children in these schools. Further it also places an enormous burden on the teachers who also need to take care of these children. On the same note children of a certain age are admitted to a certain class irrespective of whether they have gone to school till then. This also lowers the standard and places an enormous burden on the government teachers.
Finally as the parents pay to send the children to private schools, they take a little more care about the child’s attendance, homework, studying at home etc. Problems like regular or long-term absenteeism is often seen in government schools esp. in tribal areas where value for education is low. I presume this will not happen in private schools.
So the remarkable thing is that despite all the above setbacks, the children going to government school on an average do slightly better than the children going to private schools! And if you note in the Tamilnadu ASER results, they have been consistently doing better every time from 2012!!!
The first two misconceptions (regarding the salary and qualifications of government teachers) are mostly prevalent among the urban elite. Clearly people in the government schools themselves know their salaries and how difficult it is to get in. However the third misconception about the learning levels of children is very prevalent even among the government school teachers and education department officials themselves. This can be seen in the fact that they mostly get their own children admitted into private schools. I hope these perceptions change over time and we enter a situation similar to most developed countries where most of the children go to government schools.
Asha’s mission statement reads “TO CATALYZE SOCIO-ECONOMIC CHANGE IN INDIA THROUGH THE EDUCATION OF UNDERPRIVILEGED CHILDREN”. I fully subscribe to this faith in the ability of basic education to eventually create a social transformation. Any other direct engagement to try and create social transformation of whatever kind (eg. gender equality) will falter without basic education.
Before I go too far defending this position, let me clarify what I mean by basic education. Basic education is essentially the 3-Rs of education (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic). This is essentially basic language and Maths skills with understanding (i.e. not just Rote Learning). These provide the tools a person uses to comprehend and make sense of the world around us. At a certainly stage science comes in to help understand the physical world and social sciences help understand the human world. This is the kind of education that a good schooling system should deliver to a child by the age of 13 to 15. I firmly believe any social transformation, progress however defined cannot happen without a society made up of people who are literate and can comprehend the world. While basic education may not in itself be sufficient to produce the desired social changes, it is an essential prerequisite.
Scepticism about Basic Education
I often see people who used to believe in the power of basic education who have begun having doubts regarding that. There are also some who never believed in the power of basic education. You hear objections to basic education from various quarters. What is the point in educating someone if …
they cannot get a job after that?
they do not learn the right values? The definition of right values on the conservative side would be things like not stealing, respecting the rules of the society, respecting the elders, following the traditions of the religion/social group etc. On the liberal side the right values would include things like respecting equality across gender, caste, class, religion etc. Orthogonal to the conservative – liberal divide you have the green value of treating the environment with care which these days is becoming more and more urgent.
the process of education takes away their freedom.
All these questions go to the fundamental question of what is the purpose of education? There are many ways to think about purpose of education. I believe each of these are important and in and off of themselves provide justification for education. The problem is that people think only one among these provide the justification and refuse to consider the others.
Broadly we can think about purpose of education in terms of the individual child that is getting educated or in terms of the society which in various ways “educates” the child. Both these perspectives are extremely important. Without a meaningful purpose why should a parent educate the child? Without a meaningful purpose why should a society build all the infrastructure required (schools, books, languages, numerical systems etc.) to educate the people?
Why should a child be educated?
A child going through the education system often does not have the opportunity to exercise a choice in whether he/she wishes to get educated. Parents make that choice for the child. At later stages in their lives individuals will choose the kind of education they obtain in various ways. Here are some strong reasons to educate a child.
Education benefits the individual by increasing their “value” to the society. While the connection between basic education and the value they derive from it over their lifetime of employment is difficult to comprehend, there have been studies that have shown just this connection. Abhjit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo, in their “Poor Economics” book, talk about studies that show that incremental education at every level contributes to an increase in lifetime earnings. This increase is even higher at the level of basic education.
Evolutionary or Genetic
Through generations of natural selection and survival human beings have evolved sufficiently complex linguistic skills and numeric skills to enable us to be the dominant species of this planet. These basic linguistic and numeric skills are transmitted across generations through education. Children have evolved an innate sense of curiosity to seek and understand this world. This clearly adds to their chances of survival. For a child to explore and learn are as fundamental as eating food, breathing air and growing. You can clearly see this in the curiosity every child exhibits about their environment. This is fundamental to our existence as a species.
One of the unconquered frontiers in science is an explanation of the nature of our consciousness. Since there is no single accepted theory, allow me the luxury of pontificating my own theory. I believe the following: Development of consciousness is not incidental to the existence of this universe but fundamental to it.
I do not want to go too far elaborating this theory which is quite tangential to the purpose of this article. If you think of a 4 dimensional egg (with space and time) that contains the entire history of the universe, that egg clearly contains consciousness. I do not think such a 4 dimensional egg of Universe could have existed without that consciousness inside it. Beyond that anything else I say about how that consciousness really plays out in the natural laws of universe would become very speculative. May be something like the Neils Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics where conscious perception reduces the probability cloud to a single event/object OR may be consciousness through free will or intent enables efficient cause which creates the arrow of time OR …
If consciousness is fundamental to the universe, acquiring the intelligence required to perceive and understand the universe is like the extended phenotype of that consciousness and clearly has something to do with the nature of the universe itself. In this loop, our intelligence and education through which that intelligence has grown to understand the Universe are critical to our very existence and the existence of the Universe! I know this is a stretch and if you feel it is too big a stretch, stick to the other reasons I have given.
Expanding Freedom of Thought
At a basic level education expands your choice. It expands your choice in terms of the nature of your employment. It expands your choice in terms of developing your own opinions. It provides you the tools to go beyond blindly accepting what everyone else in your community believes in and instead develop your own thoughts. The basic education paves the way for such a freedom of thought.
But this doesn’t come without caveats. What if the education is completely rote based that only stresses on memorization of facts and that too facts that are not necessarily true but are just convenient for the society’s set of biases? I have to say I am an optimist in this regard. I loved the movie “Truman Show” for this very reason. Even when the entire society is constructed for the express purpose of convincing this person of a false reality, he through great pains reasons out the true nature of his reality. In a way the movie is a parable for basic education, reason and freedom. Even in its most wretched rote form, education does provide the tools for a child to break away from the false structures of thought that the society fills their head with.
Why should the society educate an individual?
People often think about the benefits that accrue to an individual by getting educated and since society is made up of individuals society also indirectly benefits. But society is not just a sum of its parts. Education is a social exercise and it would be useful to understand why societies have evolved ways to educate its young. Some of these reasons are below.
When the members of the society are educated the strength of the community as a whole increases. It becomes more capable of resisting external shocks from other human groups as well as nature. By equipping the people with a common language and mathematical language to talk, it enables higher discoveries. Human societies have progressed from small hunter-gatherer tribes to larger agricultural settlements to the techno-industrial society that spans the whole world thanks only to education. Even the problems that we have created through this “progress” (like the climate crisis) can also be addressed only through the education of its members.
Society needs its members to mimic the same actions and thought patterns in order to survive and grow. While people think of grand things like belief in equality or free trade, this is exhibited the most thoroughly in much more basic things. Every society develops a common language and common mathematical abstractions to communicate. We all use a common vocabulary and grammar to talk. These days we all use a decimal number system with place-value and with abstract notions like addition and subtraction which we all agree upon. We all understand what 27 means and what 3 + 2 means and remarkably we all understand it in pretty much the same way! This is the mimesis that the society critically needs to survive. Society uses education to brain-wash all the children to start using these structures of thoughts in their own thinking.
At a certain level you can see that this social purpose of mimesis is the very opposite of the individual purpose of freedom of thought. Shared language, mathematical abstractions and structures of thought are great accelerators in pushing our own thoughts and higher level reasoning further. However children should also retain the basic skepticism that these are abstractions of thought and only partially reflect the reality outside. A balance needs to struck between these two in providing basic education. After all it is in society’s own best interest to allow the individuals to push the boundaries of thoughts.
Individuals benefit from basic education by expanding their opportunities for work and living, by expanding their freedom of thought, etc. Society requires education to create abstractions of language and mathematics to help develop the society further as well as better the society in simple material ways.
The objections mentioned earlier that I often encounter from various people, are not sufficient reasons to question basic education itself. Yes education may be creating a lot of educated unemployed people. Yes education may not really be equipping the average child to question the bad traditions of the society. Yes education may only be turning the person into a more qualified thief in some cases. Yes education may be imposed on the child and take away its natural freedom and sense of exploration in some cases. These are reasons for continuing to improve the basic education system in place and not one for questioning its need.
Last week I visited several schools in rural Thiruvallur. Recent rains had filled the landscape with greens of all shades. In this beautiful rural setting was this school that we are supporting. I went and sat in the 4th std class that our Asha teacher was teaching. It was Tamil period and she had finished a lesson on Mariyathai Raman and was discussing the questions at the end of the lesson. The first question was about why the farmer had rented the elephant. She asked the children this in colloquial Tamil and most of the children were able to give the answer in colloquial Tamil. She then proceeded to mark the answer for this in the textbook with some minor change in the way the sentence is ended etc. She did the same with all the questions. Here is the textbook if you are curious.
I stopped her at this point and wanted to interact with the children. I told them the following story in colloquial Tamil.
“Vijay!” Mom called out as she walked in through the front door. “Vijay,” she continued shouting, “I sure could use some help with these groceries”. There was still no reply. Mom walked into the kitchen to put the grocery bags down on the floor when she noticed broken glass from the window all over the living room floor and a cricket ball not far from there. “I’m going to kill you, Vijay!” Mom yelled to herself as she realized that Vijay’s chappals were gone.
I told them this story and asked them what did they think had happened. They were able to reason that Vijay had probably played cricket and broken the window. When I asked them if it could have been something else. They explained that it could have been the kid next door. Clearly their comprehension skills are fine. But then why does the textbook only ask questions for which answers are right there in the textbook. And the teachers give them the “perfect” answer and expect them to write just that. Then finally in the exam the same question from the textbook would be repeated and the children will be expected to repeat the same “perfect” answer.
This is Rote Learning!
The problem will be complicated several fold in English. In Tamil at least, when I speak in colloquial Tamil, there is no issue with comprehension. There will be some problem with reading the chaste Tamil in the textbook and in writing the answer. In English, comprehension is itself a major issue whether in spoken or written form and the English in the textbook is well beyond the ability of the kids and why just the kids, even most of the teachers.
What is Rote Learning?
Rote Learning is learning without understanding. Rote learning is probably the biggest blight plaguing Indian education system now. This is more deeply ingrained than many people think. I will show how it has penetrated our system through some anecdotes. Do not view these as isolated events. These anecdotes pretty much reflect how education is transacted in most of Tamilnadu.
What isn’t Rote Learning?
Rote learning is often described as memorising. Memorising in itself is essential to education and not something bad. If I tell that 9 multiplied by 8 is 72, I did not add 9 eight times to arrive at the answer. I have the tables memorised including 9 x 8 = 72. But I know the way in which the answer is arrived at. I have memorised something I understand to speed up common tasks. Similarly if you ask me the major nations that were part of the allied powers in World War II, I have memorised that these are US, UK and Soviet Union. But I also know several other details related to World War II which provides me a broader context to place this fact.
Several other things based on recent fads are categorised in common parlance as Rote Learning. With the rise of computers, a question often comes up. Why do we need to memorise facts in the days of Google and Wikipedia? What we need to do are the creative things that computers do not do. That is a misunderstanding and a misstatement of the creative process. Creative ideas do not come up in a vacuum. It comes from a fusion of several pieces of information that we carry in our brain. To perform creatively, we need to have a level of mastery over the activity in question that doesn’t come without lots of knowledge. Creativity in something like music or dance will depend on knowledge that we do not typically associate with memorising. But creativity in fields like science and technology will very much depend on thorough knowledge of that field as well as a good bit of knowledge of other fields.
So while creativity should be fostered by providing a good environment for experimentation and safe space for failures, this does not directly bear on the rote learning topic that we have taken up for discussion.
Other idea that is conflated with Rote learning is mass education. These days the fad that many are pushing is individualised and customised learning. You would have heard this joke about a school in the forest with an elephant, a deer, a monkey and something else as students. The test in the school asks the students to climb the tree as fast as they can. Children also come with different potentials and therefore need to be addressed individually. I believe this can be dealt with within the context of mass education. While the broad ideas in this are unexceptionable, there is no reason why mass education cannot also deal with serving the varied needs of individual children. Home schooling or learning with a PAL (Personalised Assistive Learning) system need not be the only solution.
A couple of years back, a friend of mine and I went to the Founder’s day function at a good private CBSE school, the types of which the rich educated elite in the city send their children to. The chief guest was talking about how the requirements of the education system has changed with the new knowledge economy. He asked all the children (just classes 11th and 12th if I remember right), if they wanted to do the same kind of work their parents and all others in the society did day in and day out for their whole life or want to do something unique and different that is suited to their individual abilities. Everyone put up their hand for the latter. I think the speaker and the children missed the irony in the response. In wanting to be a unique individual you are just conforming with the masses! Me and my friend were suppressing our subversive giggles in an otherwise serious audience! Being yourself, expressing yourself etc. have just become fads. True education will take us beyond these silly slogans.
Rote Learning in Schools
Rote learning starts right from a young age. When a kid is asked to do something without understanding it reduces education to memorising something to please the teacher. This starts right from the first standard. In Maths one of the important points for teachers to note is to lead from concrete to abstract. Even when you start teaching numbers, the teacher should realise the abstractness of say 4. There can be 4 boys, 4 bags, 4 pens or 4 pencils. There is no such thing as 4 itself. A number needs to be introduced with physical objects and then the children need to be gradually introduced to more abstractions. You can have pictures of 4 flowers or 3 trees. Then you can have tally marks to represent objects or count the objects with fingers. Finally you introduce the children to the number form (i.e. 4) and how to write the number name. But time and again you will see children writing a whole page full of 4 and cannot answer if I ask how many fingers I am holding up. Rote learning starts right there.
In English, the children need to memorise the alphabets. Phonetics associates the letter with its sound which provides a certain context for the letter. This is mostly not taught. Then the children are made to memorise the spelling of various words without syllabification or understanding how the sounds of the letters came together to form the word. I remember this little girl who was memorising the words in a card:
A-P-P-L-E apple A-N-T ant A-E-R-O-P-L-A-N-E ask A-S-K aeroplane ...
Poor girl – just a slight mix up. You also often see one child giving the spelling loudly and the other children repeating it:
s-u S-U n-d N-D a-y A-Y m-o M-O n-d N-D a-y A-Y
Syllabification will make remembering the spelling of these words much easier as all of these end with “day” which is spelled the same way. Children even tell their own names without syllabification VA-RS-AN-A or SR-IN-IV-AS-AN. Clearly their job would have been much easier had they been taught spelling with syllabification.
That brings up the point. Understanding helps us abstract out common ideas and thus we can memorise a lot more than we could have without understanding. They say the Chess Grandmasters remember thousands of games and board positions. They are able to do that because they have a certain way of understanding the positions in the board which us common men do not.
Teaching the method instead of the concept
As children move to 3rd to 5th standard the regular pattern for teaching Maths settles in. Children are taught the method to arrive at the answers for various problems and their understanding of the concept is forgotten.
I went to a 3rd std class in another school. The teacher was teaching how to identify odd and even numbers to 3rd std children for two and three digit numbers. Note basic odd and even numbers is already introduced to the children in 2nd std. There they are taught that when you remove pairs from a number, if there is finally one left, then it is an odd number and if there is nothing left it is an even number. But in 3rd standard when I asked the children what is an odd number, they all in chorus answered to me numbers that end in 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9 are odd numbers. The underlying concept of odd number is already forgotten!
Arithmetic is built on top of place value system for numbers. This is often a problem for most children. We had two questions in an assessment for 5th Std children.
Over 75% of the children could do the first sum but only 25% could answer the second. The main problem is place-value. This clearly ought to be accorded the highest priority. Instead mastery over the methodology for carrying in the case of addition and borrowing in the case of subtraction is what is emphasised.
Similarly I asked children in the 6th standard, what is 2743 ÷ 2743. The children in the class couldn’t answer. Then I told them: I go to a big school with 2743 children. I have a big sack full of 2743 chocolates. How many chocolates can I give each student? All the children could answer that I can give one chocolate to each student. Then had forgotten what division really means! I noticed the same thing when I asked a bright student in class 5, 47 ÷ 47 = ? . The student wrote the full tables for 47 and then did a long form division of 47 by 47 and arrived at the quotient of 1 and remainder of 0 in about 5 minutes. He had mastered the methodology but once again forgot the concept.
I notice that even among our own teachers. See the following two triangles.
Many of the teachers will be able to find the area of the first triangle but not the second! They know the formula is 1/2.b.h. They have constantly been shown triangles with base in the bottom and h dropping from the opposite vertex. They cannot compute the area if the triangle is oriented in any other way or other measures are given!
I have talked in another article about how the assessments in India are completely broken. Assessments and ultimately board exams serve as the beacon for the classroom teaching-learning process. At the local level questions for the exams are given to the children and they are coached on them before the exams. At the board level, the questions are mostly directly lifted from the textbook or question-bank. This doesnt emphasise anything other than recall and memorising. With these as beacons why would the teacher do anything else in a class than push rote learning.
Occasionally government gives a halfhearted attempt to reform these in small ways. But the public, drunk on this notion of education, rises up to protest these changes, or in their own way subvert these attempts. For example all the boards have practicals for science which need not be graded at a board level. Therefore local teachers from neighbouring school conduct these tests and also do a viva to see if the children can practically demonstrate the understanding of the science concepts. This has been completely subverted. Everyone expects full marks in practicals and schools have no choice but to give that. Similarly CCE has introduced internals to measure children not just on the exams but also on various other parameters. Again the people’s expectation was that the schools should award full marks on the internals and thus enable their students to compete against the rest of the world. Changes to rote learning has to happen at both ends — at the local level of a teacher teaching a class and at the level of board exams. And to set the expectations straight, these changes to rote learning will be gradual.
Bloom’s Taxonomy and Higher Order Thinking Skills
Another way to think about Rote Learning is using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s taxonomy is often used in education/pedagogy related discussions. This structures learning in a pyramid. Recall or Knowledge is at the base of the pyramid. Then comes comprehension or understanding. Then comes the ability to apply what one has learnt to other contexts. Then one needs to be able to analyse an existing system or problem to figure out the concepts involved, the structure and relationships present etc. Evaluation involves the pros and cons of an approach and also evaluate the impact of an intervention. Finally these lead to synthesis and creation where one is able to apply all that one has learnt to create something that meets a real need.
Rote learning refers here to the base of the pyramid. When the teaching-learning process only teaches recall or knowledge, that is rote learning. Education systems in the countries with good education systems are already at an Understanding level. They are looking to move the children towards Higher Order Thinking Skills or HOTS. These are skills beyond the Understanding level in the Bloom’s pyramid. In the CBSE and Tamilnadu state board textbooks, these days you find HOTS questions. These are essentially challenging questions which go beyond the worked out examples. But then the children are asked to become familiar with these types of questions as well so that they can solve the same type of questions in the exams. This defeats the purpose of such questions. Higher Order Thinking Skills is not about asking tougher questions. It is about moving the children beyond just understanding to skills like application, analysis, evaluation and ultimately synthesis and creation.
In India we need to move the children first beyond just Knowledge or Recall level of learning or in other words eliminate Rote learning.
Why Should We Bother?
There is the argument that with the information revolution underway, it is essential for individuals to develop their higher order thinking skills in order to be able to play a meaningful role in the information economy and thus benefit from it. I agree with this as a strong reason for an individual to rise above rote learning. But I am not sure how the information economy is ever going to engage anything more than a small minority of the population in its creative endeavours. Rather than get into that debate, I believe there are more fundamental reasons for developing the higher thinking skills than this utilitarian one.
Humans are endowed with an innate curiosity to understand the World. At an evolutionary level this is what has enabled these weak apes to dominate the World. As an existential level this is what has made it possible for us to seek meaning of our existence and that of the universe – and to make sense of it all. This is fundamental to our life and our existence as human beings. Children should be aided in developing the inherent curiosity. That should not be killed in the classroom.
Society progresses through education of the correct kind. Scientific progress comes from understanding, reasoning, analysis etc. not by just memorising what others have done. Economic transformation of societies have been painstakingly brought about by improving all aspects of our lives.
Asha the organisation I volunteer with has the mission statement “To catalyse socio-economic change in India through education of underprivileged children”. A questioning mind is a prerequisite for social change. Only education can wake up a nation slumbering in it age-old superstitions. There is nothing wrong in traditions per-se. But these need to be questioned and best ideas should be preserved and bad ideas thrown out. A mass of population fed on rote learning will not be able to bring about meaningful social change. Even the social change brought about without education will take us from the frying pan into the fire.
For all these and more we need to bring better education to all.
There are many ways to use technology to enhance learning. I find often that technology aided learning is equated with using videos and presentations in classrooms. There are several other ways in which technology can be used in enhancing learning and often much more effectively. I am going to briefly touch upon what I consider as important ways. The emphasis of the article will be in technologies that can used for learning at a primary and middle school level. I will first identify some of the ways in which it can be used at higher levels of learning and then dive into some more details for SmartClasses and Digital Classrooms which are the technologies that hold the greatest potential in education for younger children.
Learning Management Systems
LMSes have been used in higher education for a while. There are many commercial players. Moodle is a very popular open-source LMS with a lot of the capabilities of the commercial ones. LMSes provide a way to structure the academic program of a school or college. Teachers can create and share contents with their classes, track the progress of students in their class, give them assignments, receive submitted assignments, provide the grades and feedback on assignments and tests, interact with the students over text/audio/video etc. Students get these benefits and also have a platform for peer group interactions and access to a library of resources above and beyond their teacher assigned materials through their LMS. LMSes can also provide parents access to some information about the progess of their children.
LMSes are typically a web/server based solutions and would require access to technology on the part of the students and teachers. Most of the features will work with a typical Smartphone. This is likely to be more useful for colleges than schools. Schools in developed countries have started using these in various ways as well.
Massive Open Online Courses. These are largely used in colleges where access to teachers with the knowledge required to teach a course is at a premium. MOOCS provides a way for a single teacher to reach even a Lakh or more students. Online courses in general can also provide way for students to access teachers who are not available in the local area. This is not really a solution at the school level.
In a typical teaching-learning process, concepts are taught in a class and the teacher assigns homework for the students where the children get to practice the concepts by working on problems, answer questions etc. Flipped classrooms flip this model. Children learn concepts at home through videos and assigned readings and thus gain basic familiarity with the concepts. They then work on problems and questions in the classroom where their peers and the teachers can assist them if they encounter any questions.
Flipped classrooms will typically be combined with LMSes. But it can also be used without any use of technology. Like PAL systems below, for these to be useful for younger children, I believe the parents need to be educated and motivated for it to succeed.
Personalised Assisted Learning (PAL) systems
Children learn on their own using PAL system. The system shows them videos to teach concepts, gives them activities, assesses them on worksheets to track their progress. These days home-schoolers often use some PALs. There are several commercial ones and also famously Khan academy offers a very good free one. Access and ability to deal with technology is a strong requirement. I believe without educated parents who know the concepts being taught to the children and being there to help if there are problems, this will not work. IRT or Item Response Theory is an area of research that helps PAL systems figure out the learning levels of children across a wide range of competencies.
Teachers can learn concepts as well as how to teach concepts through technology. Training can be augmented with instruction at the point of use. Simple instructions given at the time when a lesson is taught can work better than detailed instructions given months before when the lesson is taught. These can be aligned as part of an LMS.
There are extreme approaches to pedagogy where teachers are just expected to precisely speak what they are instructed to by an app. Or teacher is merely a facilitator with the children learning most things through a PAL system. I do not think these approaches will work especially for younger children. But I do believe technology can help a teacher improve how she teaches concepts by bringing training close to the point of teaching a lesson.
Smart Classes or Digital Classroom
Finally we have come to approach that I believe has the greatest potential. This is the approach where a teacher uses computers or broadly technology to aid learning for their class. There are two further approaches within this.
Computer Lab Model – There is a separate classroom in the school where children learn using technology. In this room there are many computers and other devices to aid learning. Advantage of this is that there would be many computers that children can use and resources will be shared by different classes in the school.
Computer in the class Model – Here the classroom or the teacher has a computer. The class may also have a projector / SmartClass setup. Advantage of this approach is the immediacy of the technology. Teacher can show something to the children on the computer as an integrated part of the lesson.
A combination of these is also possible. There may be a computer lab where the children go by a weekly schedule and the teachers may also bring a laptop to the class for additional inputs. In small rural schools a computer teacher may bring a laptop with her/him and may teach the children Maths, English and other subjects using contents on the laptop. Given the small sizes of the classes, the children may also get to directly play educational games on the laptop.
What are various ways in which a teacher can use these contents to enhance education?
Passive Contents or Presentations
These are videos or presentations that a teacher may show to a class. These can be used to teach a concept or provide additional inputs about the concept being taught in a class. This is suitable for a bigger classroom as it can be shown to all the children at the same time using a bigger screen. However the main problem here is that the teachers tend to disengage themselves and make themselves busy doing other things. Research has found that children do not learn by just watching videos. It is extremely important that,
The content being shown directly relates to the concept being taught and uses the same pedagogy. For instance subtraction can be taught by removing the second number from the first or by counting up from the second number to reach the first number. The topic should match and the method being taught should also match what the teacher is doing.
The teacher should make the presentation interactive by frequently interrupting it and asking children some questions that relate what they are seeing in the video to what they earlier learnt in the class.
If a teacher uses passive contents in the proper way, it can be effective in enhancing the learning. There are many contents available on the net as well as for download to be used locally. Khan academy offers very good videos for teaching almost all topics in Maths. There are many free resources for teaching English, even ones created by government institutes in India like Hello English by Regional Institute of English, Fun with English by SSA Tamilnadu etc., or the website Starfall with several videos on teaching Phonetics.
Active Contents or Games/Simulations
These are contents that children directly engage with to learn some concepts. Typically these are games or simulations. Teacher selects a game for the students to play and through playing those games children get to learn or practice concepts learnt in the class. Games typically come in handy to practice concepts learnt in the class. Teachers’ work is easier in that the children largely learn on their own by playing the appropriate games. The main drawback of this is that this will require much larger number of computers or computing devices for a given number of children.
There are many multitude of games available especially for Maths and some for English. TuxMath provides a simple game to give practice to children of basic operations at different levels as would suit the student. Many websites like basic-mathematics, ictgames etc. offer a good set of games for Maths and English.
Second category of active contents, Simulations, in my mind really demonstrate the most effective use of computers in education. These bring to the classroom things that the children otherwise cannot experience first hand. The following tools demonstrate the power of simulations.
National Library of Virtual Manipulatives (NLVM) are virtual recreations of popular Maths manipulatives like Diennes Blocks, Colour Chips, Clock, Geoboards and also some not so common ones. Children can have access to these even in schools where these are not available. Beyond that the tools also provide experiences that cannot be replicated in their real physical counterparts like the Diennes blocks where a 10 piece automatically splits into 10 unit pieces when you move it to the one’s place or vice-versa.
PhET provides simulations of several experiments in Science. The simulations show the behaviour of objects and systems in a way very similar to real objects. The students can essentially do an experiment on their computer and see results that are very similar to doing the experiment with physical objects. These provide access to things that are way beyond what will be physically available in a classroom.
Geogebra is a Maths visualisation tool. It can help visualise many of the concepts students encounter in their schools or even colleges. From simple things like fractions and LCM/HCF to complex polynomials, it can help visualise many concepts.
There are some other tools like Matlab that can also be used to great effect in classrooms. If readers know other good tools, please let me know.
Classroom or Offline Activites
Technology can provide easy access to tools to help conduct classroom or offline activites. It can provide video instructions and materials required to conduct an activity. Lesson plans and worksheets can be given to teachers. Online lesson plans that help you track progress against them are often part of most LMSes.
There are many good examples of offline activities for which all the necessary tools are provided online. MathPickle is an especially good website that provides many Maths games that can be organised in classrooms from classes as young as 2nd or 3rd standard. The games address skills that are not part of a typical curriculum. Schoolhouse Bingo provides ways to generate Bingo games that can teach basic Maths and English concepts.
Another interesting way in which learning of Maths, language and science can be improved is through programming. Code.org, a popular resource for teaching programming for kids as young as those in Kindergarten through the school years is premised on this. Programming improves several reasoning skills in the children which also improves their learning of other subjects. Further programming can be used to demonstrate Science and Maths concepts which can further their understanding of the underlying concepts. For instance a student taking part in developing a program which will show a dot moving in an elliptical orbit around another dot while sweeping equal angular areas every unit time will develop a very good understanding of Kepler’s laws. But the main drawback is that even though resources can be made available, this kind of employment of programming in teaching will require teachers who are qualified in programming.
Data Collection and Analysis
Large scale data is required in policy making in almost every sphere. Education requires significant data collection, analysis and presentation. There are couple of very good efforts underway in India. Unified District Information on School Education (UDISE) captures basic data about all schools in India. It also provides good tools to access data of specific schools. Further it provides an excellent dashboard to get broad information about the overall state of schools in India or specific states. National Achievement Survey or NAS is conducted by NCERT for a sample of schools every three years to track the progress in education in India. This is once again conducted well and the data is presented well in their website.
These kinds of large scale data collection, analysis and presentation is not possible without technology.
Summing it up
There are many way in which technology can be used in secondary and tertiary learning (i.e. higher secondary schools, colleges and beyond). Personalised Assisted Learning offers potential but it utility for teaching younger children is likely to be limited to cases where the parents have good education and can help the children in their learning process.
The primary ways in which learning can be enhanced at primary and middle schools through technology is through teacher training and with SmartClasses or Digital Classrooms. These have great potential to help further education in India. Currently Technology aided learning is equated with a projector in a classroom and showing videos and presentations to children. While this is one way to improve learning that too when used in a correct way, there are many other ways in which technology can improve education in a classroom.
Outside of the classroom, technology can also be used to improve education delivery through large scale data collection, analysis and presentation.
For a number of years Tamilnadu was held up as a model state for socio-economic development. Basic governmental functions work well in Tamilnadu. eg.
Medical care through a network of public health centres (PHCs) and hospitals.
Urbanisation and economic development.
Functioning of the Public Distribution System (PDS) or ration shops.
Establishment of network of schools and Balwadis. Provision of midday meals for children through these instituitions.
Underpinning all of these was a strong educational system. Tamilnadu built up a good basic and higher education network. The higher education network was also in part a colonial legacy. Three of the four science nobel laureates of Indian origin were from Tamilnadu. C.V.Raman, Subramaniam Chandrasekar and Venki Ramakrishnan were from Tamilnadu and interestingly all of them studied in the Presidency College in Chennai. Only Hargobind Khorana was not from Tamilnadu. Tamilnadu garnered a much higher share of admissions into central governmental postings and educational institutions than its population would have warranted during the decades of the 50s to the 80s. I was also a beneficiary of this trend. When I joined IIT in 1987, something like 25 of the top 100 ranks in the IIT-JEE were garnered by Tamils. A large number of the doctors in AIIMS or PDMCT Chandigarh were Tamils. Even a large share of the IAS officers and other central government employees were also Tamils.
From the times of Kamaraj and later under the DMK/ADMK regimes, the governments recognised the importance of basic education. Access to education was spread much earlier in Tamilnadu than in many other states. Southern states, especially Kerala and Tamilnadu were held as model states for education by all the states in India. When India attempted to participate in PISA in 2009, it selected Tamilnadu and Himachal Pradesh to represent it.
Riding on top of all this, Tamilnadu has done quite well economically. It rose to become one of the most industrialised and prosperous states by the early 2000s. While Tamilnadu continues to compare favourably on many of the other social factors, its education system has started deteriorating.
Signs of Deterioration
Starting from 2010 there have been several signs of deterioration in Tamilnadu education system.
As per the SEQI document, Tamilnadu continues to score high in terms of access to education, equity in education, infrastructure etc. In the SEQI document the table in page 5 which shows the index without the learning outcomes shows Tamilnadu retaining the second position behind Kerala. However when learning outcomes are also considered, it slips to 8th (out of 20 large states). When you only consider learning outcomes it comes a very poor 15th. Many states that have traditionally done poorly have done far better than Tamilnadu. Rajasthan has come second overall in learning outcomes. Even Bihar and Jharkhand have done significantly better than Tamilnadu at 12th and 7th ranks respectively. Other southern states that traditionally do well like Kerala (4th), Karnataka (1st), Andhra Pradesh (3rd) have all continued to do well.
Looking at the detailed performance through the NAS dashboard doesnt look any better. In each of the classes 3rd, 5th, 8th and 10th, Tamilnadu is in the bottom half in terms of performance. Language performance lags behind Maths. While even 5 years earlier in 2012, Tamilnadu had started showing signs of decline it was still performing quite well overall. You can see the NAS results for 2012 to see the performance being significantly better in most of the classes.
Performance in Pratham’s ASER
Pratham an NGO has been publishing ASER (Annual State of Education Report) since 2007. They conduct a simple test to assess the basic capabilities of the students in Reading, Arithmetic and English. This has served the very important purpose of pointing out the complete disconnect between the curriculum, children passing through various grades etc. and their basic educational attainments. The wide variation between the years of the performance of specific states puts a big question mark over the assessment methodology. Despite this the overall pattern is clear. Tamilnadu has been performing somewhere in the bottom half in both reading and Maths assessments.
Performance in National Entrance Tests
In itself performance in the national level entrance tests by states largely reflects the state of the coaching industry. I do not think that in itself is a good thing. But despite that I am quoting some articles on these entrance tests to show that the under-performance is also there in the schools that serve the elite in the state.
So the under-performance by Tamilnadu is not just restricted to elementary schools or to government schools but is also visible in the critical 12th standard results. Further these entrance exams are taken by the “best” students. So these details show that the decline is not just for average students but also for the elite cream of the students. For a long time the performance of students from Tamilnadu has been declining in the JEE. In recent times, with the introduction of NEET as a qualifying exam for medical colleges, the decline has been showing up in the NEET exam as well.
Reasons for this Deterioration
Analyzing the reasons for any large scale socio-economic reality is bound to be inexact and subjective. My exercise is not going to be any better. I have made an attempt to give factors that are often stated as well as factors I believe deserve serious consideration and analysed them in the following sections.
Poor Quality of Board Exams
Board exams serve as a beacon for the whole schooling system. That sets the standard for what the children are expected to learn/achieve by that age/class. Board exams in Tamilnadu state board unmistakably tells the teachers that they need to train the children to memorise things in their textbook and reproduce them in the exam to do well in their education. You can see rote learning at its worst in our Tamilnadu board exams. I have heard numbers upwards of 95% for the percentage of questions that are directly lifted from the textbooks and question banks! Even in Maths, questions are reproduced verbatim in the exams without even changing the numbers! We can see the same trend repeating in younger classes as well. Children are made to memorise methods (like long-form division, addition with carry, addtion of unlike fractions etc.) without understanding them. Memorization is considered as the primary aspect of education whether it is in the teaching of Maths or language.
This culture shows no signs of changing. While other states are aligning their boards with NCERT and thus improving the standard of education to the level of the CBSE schools, Tamilnadu resolutely resists this.
Wrong Performance Metrics
Government teachers are given automatic promotion by seniority for most part. This is not unlike the rest of the government. This is itself is not a good way to encourage productivity. Beyond this the education department requires various metrics from the schools that nudge things in the wrong direction.
BRTs (Block Resource Trainers) classify children in the various schools into four grades A to D based on their basic achievement. Children in C or D grades are significantly below their grade levels in learning. School HM and teachers are asked to explain if there are children in C and D grades and conduct remedial classes for them etc. To avoid all these headaches the BRTs and the schools invariably fudge these grades.
The CCE (Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation) and its summative (once a term) and Formative (one for each lesson) assessments are completely broken. Once again the schools are expected to submit the results from these to the higher officials. You will often see that the kind of questions asked in the FA and SA are well beyond the abilities of the children. Note the summative assessments are sent to the schools from the SCERT. The schools fudge these results all the time. This fudging impacts the quality of these assessments in all classes. These are detailed in my separate article on assessment. Ultimately the teachers are not given the freedom to set the question papers at a level appropriate for the children and honestly grade them.
A basic recognition is required that a large majority of the factors influencing education is beyond the control of the school and the teachers. Studies from US suggest that only 20% of a students performance depends on what is happening in the school. This is likely to be similar in Tamilnadu as well. So to question a school or even a teacher on poor performance of children does not make sense. Metrics that would make sense will be to evaluate the actual practice of teaching-learning process followed by the teachers in the classrooms and any improvements in the performance of the children in an honestly conducted assessment.
Improving enrollment and availability of infrastructure and additional materials for the school and children are other things considered significant by the education department. These are important no doubt. However while these are focussed on and the basic educational attainment of the children is not, that conveys a wrong priority to the teachers.
Contrary to the popular depiction of Indian governments as lethargic elephants, Tamilnadu education department has been making dramatic changes over the last several years. In 2007 it introduced ABL (Activity Based Learning) for classes 1 to 4 and ALM (Advanced Learning Methodology) for classes 5 to 8 in select schools and this was rolled out to all over Tamilnadu in 2008 by the then DMK government. ABL was an interesting experiment. It was based on the Montessori system and adapted for the Indian conditions by schools like Rishi Valley School and Isai Ambalam, which are themselves quite experimental, non-mainstream schools. ABL has a few good basic principles: learn at your own pace – children go through different ladders for different subjects and can progress at their own pace till the 4th standard in each of the ladder, multi-age classes and peer group based learning, teacher as a facilitator rather than an instructor, activity based learning etc. This was for a large part a failure because of strong resistance to change from the entrenched teacher community and because of huge bureaucratic overhead that was placed on the teachers. The teachers were supposed to submit to the authorities, where each child was in every ladder and explain if they were not keeping pace. This turned the focus away from learning to just filling the ladder for each child!
ALM was once again a very experimental approach. It primarily revolved around mind-maps. Children were expected to develop mind-maps for the concepts they were learning. Here again this was turned into blind form-filling exercise. The mind-maps were already created for the kids for every concept and the children just needed to fill the boxes with words from the text-book lesson! Imagine that – every child is supposed to have the same mind-map for every concept!
In 2011 Jayalalitha came to power and she had to throw out all things introduced by the previous government. She changed ABL to SABL or Simplified-ABL and ALM to SALM or Simplified-ALM. ABL was essentially stripped off all the meaning and the only things that was left behind was the least useful part which is the ladder and the sham form-filling done by the teachers. Important things like learn at your own pace, teacher as facilitator etc. were dropped by SABL.
Then in 2016 in her second tenure, ABL was completely thrown out and replaced by a new system called “Pedagogy”. This to some extent recognised the basic reality that education wasnt really happening without instruction driven by the teachers. Teachers were meant to create their own TLM (Teaching-Learning Materials) to teach every lesson. This also came with its own form-filling. Teacher should document and submit lesson plan for each lesson that she teaches. This is being done mechanically like other such government driven form-filling in the past.
The new “Pedagogy” system was also accompanied by a change of all the textbooks. The textbooks now have QR codes for every exercise and activity. This is not a bad move.
Another change that has taken place all over India has been the move to Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (or CCE). Breaking the academic year into 2 or 3 terms with each term having a Summative Assessment and each lesson having a Formative Assessment all of these with their own detailed reporting is the norm in most of the states. I have already talked about the problems with this in the previous section.
Often these radical changes are attempted without adequate thought as to whether the system is capable of scaling to implement the change, the infrastructure available and the restrictions that imposes on the system, the tools required for monitoring the impact of the change, the effectiveness of such tools etc.
Research has shown that the ages of 2 to 5 are the most critical in the acquisition of language and numeracy skills. Given the lack of a rich environment at home it is important to provide such an environment for the children. Balwadis or Anganwadis are supposed to provide that. But they rarely serve that purpose. Education is not the primary goal of these Balwadis which focus on the health of the mother and the infants.
While these are problems all over India, the Balwadis in Tamilnadu have been caught in a limbo for a number of years. There were tussles between the Balwadi workers and the government for several years running because these workers have not been recognised as government staff. So the Balwadis have deteriorated over the last decade or so. Adding to the list of experiments that our state government is running, they are thinking of creating Kindergarten sections in the schools. We have plunged into this without careful thinking about various problems.
What will happen to the Balwadi teachers?
Are there adequate number of teachers and classrooms in the schools to handle this?
There are often multiple Balwadis in bigger villages which are close to the habitations. Will children as young are 2.5 years be able to travel the longer distances to come to the schools?
How are the school teachers going to be trained to handle Kindergarten?
What is the curriculum for the KG?
Without all these things planned, the “Kindergarten in schools” has been more or less a non-starter.
My objections to reservation is not the typical one that it dilutes the focus on merit. To a small extent it does but I think the current trend of equating merit to performance in a heavily coached completely rote based board exam or in an even more ridiculously coached one-dimensional entrance exam is a much bigger problem.
The other and in my mind bigger problem with reservation is that it reduces the purpose of education to admission to higher education or a job. Education ought to be about the actual learning that happens over the years. Reservation, by ignoring all that and instead focusing exclusively on apportioning what you can buy with your education at the end of it, objectifies education in the minds of the people.
Tamilnadu has taken reservation much further than other states. 93% of the population is covered by some reservation or the other. Higher educational institutions reserve more than 70% of their seats for various categories of people. Proportionally the transactional, objectified notion of education is also very deep rooted in Tamilnadu.
Values of People
However flawed, we still live in a democracy. People’s will drives the long term changes. Most parents want certificates or degrees for their children that will improve their value in the job market and not really education. The education system has also been manipulated to serve just that need. People want their children to pass with high marks. The system delivers that by dumbing down the tests. Children getting 99% in the TN state board cannot get even 100 marks (out of 720) in NEET.
The value of a 10th of 12th std pass or even a college degree or five has plummeted. I have often interviewed candidates with BA or MA in English who can’t tell you the past tense of “I have a pen”, or with BSc Maths who cannot add two unlike fractions, or with BE in CS/IT who cannot tell the difference between a hard disk and a RAM. While this is true all over India, I find this particularly severe in Tamilnadu. When the education department tried to increase the number of marks in 12th std board exam for questions that were outside the textbook, there were protests from the students, parents and teachers!
Even the shift to private schools from government schools is done for all the wrong reasons. The parents value the stress placed on children’s homework, a rigid curriculum and pedagogy, strict obedience, uncomfortable dresses (in the form of shoes and ties) etc. They lack the skill and don’t put in the effort to check the real learning taking place in their children.
In this environment any positive change is often a political suicide. The best thing to do at this point will be to reform the board exam to make it test real understanding of the children and also move to higher order thinking skills. But this will be resisted tooth and nail by the society even though this is in their own best interest.
It is easy to make recommendations when you do not have to implement it and you are not the person whose head is on the block if the recommendations fail. With that acknowledgement, I will go ahead and make some recommendations.
Eliminate all the unnecessary reporting imposed by the “Pedagogy”/”SALM” systems and CCE. Train the teachers on effective teaching methods, provide them the infrastructure required to implement these methods, but then trust them and give them the freedom to teach and improve the children as they see fit. BRTs and BEOs can check the classroom practices and provide inputs to the teachers.
Conduct one controlled assessment designed in a manner that is appropriate for the classes (as determined by their actual learning level) which is not directly based on the textbook but based on the curriculum. Feedback from this should go to the schools and performance of the school and teachers should be measured based on improvements shown by the children in this assessment. The intent of this assessment should not be to detain weak performers but to honestly assess where the children are.
Start an honest dialogue with the people about the slipping standards of education in Tamilnadu and the need to improve the board exams. Gradually increase the percentage of questions that are not from the textbook but aligned to the curriculum they are supposed to be learning. This can be accompanied by simplifying the paper. You can ask the 12th standard student to identify a cat or a dog rather than asking them the same question that is there in their textbooks.
Do not keep changing the textbooks, curriculum, evaluation patterns (CCE) etc. These are merely the struts within which education takes place. Good education can take place within the existing struts. Focus on the classroom processes and give the teachers the flexibility required to adapt to the local conditions.
Bring Kindergarten into the government schools but with careful planning.
Without these changes I see Tamilnadu continuing to deteriorate in its educational standards. These will start reflecting in the economic progress of the state as well.
I wanted to talk a bit about my thoughts on Assessments here. Firstly assessment need not just be in the form of examinations. Exams are only a part of assessments.
What are some of the purposes of assessments?
For the teacher to learn what the students know. It is extremely important for the teacher to know what the students understand and do not understand.
For the students to know what they know. People’s own idea of what they know and do not know often tends to be wrong. A formal test or exam helps the student more clearly understand their own weaknesses. This is more important at higher levels of learning. At a primary level where the instruction is mostly teacher driven, this is not a very important goal. To use modern terminology, meta-cognitive abilities are considered the most important for learning. i.e. The child should learn to learn. They should understand what they know, how they can test their own knowledge, how they learn etc. For this too assessments are important.
To serve as a beacon for the teacher. If the assessment is designed by a higher body, this helps the teacher to understand what is the expected outcome for a course that he or she is teaching.
Ranking the students. Often we need to rank the students to provide admissions for higher education, selection for scholarships etc. based on certain academic criteria. Exams serve the purpose of ranking the students.
Driving policy. Data from assessments or examinations can provide information to policy makers that can drive policy related to education and development.
The reason I have taken Assessments as one of the first topics for discussing here is because I believe this is about the biggest problem facing education in India. None of the above stated goals are being served satisfactorily by the various assessments being conducted.
Where are we now?
Most of the Indian states follow some version of Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation or CCE. This is also mandated by RTE Act! In Tamilnadu primary schools, the school year is divided into 3 terms and each term they have a Summative Assessment at the end of the term. At the end of each lesson the teacher conducts a Formative Assessment. The purpose of the formative assessment is to assess how the children are learning the lesson so that the teacher can do some course correction if required for children who are not on the right track. Summative assessment is supposed to test the children on all the lessons of the term and also see how they have integrated these concepts with the broader subject materials learnt till then. Formative assessments were further broken into two sections FA(a) and FA(b). FA(a) covers expression of the concept learnt through games, dance, art etc. whereas FA(b) is the more traditional pen and paper kind of assessment.
These formative and summative assessments should meet the goals 1 and 2 of assessments as I laid out earlier. By providing some sample assessments and manuals they also to a large extent meet goal 3 in the list.
Government has created elaborate resources to train the teachers on conducting the CCE. Here are some materials created by the Tamilnadu SCERT for CCE. If you read some of these manuals you will think you have died and gone to a heaven of perfect schooling!
So what has happened? The problem is in the implementation. They first of all formalised something which ought to have remained informal — formative assessments. Rather than stopping with telling the teachers what needs to be done and allowed them the freedom to assess the children in the way they think makes sense, they specified it in a lot of details. Teachers more or less stopped applying their minds and just started using standard assessments available to conduct their FAs. Further for whatever reason FAs started getting conducted at the end of teaching the lesson rather than in the middle of it. As the name suggests it is supposed to assess the knowledge as a formative stage to do course corrections. Thus the purposes of FAs were largely defeated.
This formality extended to the SAs as well. Very few school teachers created their own FAs or SAs. At least SAs were created by some teachers as these are typical pen and paper assessments. But the thing that should have been done informally in every class, FA, was almost always taken straight from the ABL cards or teachers’ manuals.
The schools are expected to record and report the scores from the FAs and SAs to the higher officials. At higher classes like 10th and 12th, the marks from the FAs and SAs will also factor in the overall board exam marks. This completely killed CCE. Teachers cannot possibly go about being honest with these assessments. How many schools will give anything less than 25 out of 30 on any of the practical exams? CCE became like that. Children and their parents expected the school to give them maximum marks for the internal component at the board exam classes. CBSE recognised the sham it has become and has more or less reverted to the old style board exams. Internals only count for 20% marks now.
In other classes too, the teachers started fudging these assessments to not have any trouble with the higher officials or parents. All children are supposed to pass in every class till 8th std. If the child is not at grade level it reflects on the teacher and not on the child. With this pressure why would the teacher want to take the risk of having a child score poorly in an assessment?
In TN primary schools, one week before the summative assessments, the schools give the children the papers and coach them on all the answers. Then the children are expected to just recollect and answer the questions during the actual exam. For children who cannot answer the questions in spite of this, the teacher helps by giving the answer or even asks the bright children to go around and help the other children complete the assessment. Note this is not something exceptional that happens in a few bad schools.This happens in EVERY government school I have ever been to!
During the days of ABL (which was replaced by a different teaching methodology starting 2018–19), there were FA cards which was what the teacher was meant to use for the assessment. If you hold up the card against the light you can see the answers etched in them! This is the case once again in most of the schools.
So rather than assessments contributing positively to the process of education, it institutionalised rote learning and killed any sense of fairness or merit in the children.
Board exams conducted at the end of your 10th or 12th standard are there to meet the goals 3 and 4 that I laid out earlier. They serve as a beacon for the schools on where the children should be after serving the full term at the school. They also provide the ranking required for admission to higher education.
Unlike the CCE, most people are familiar with what has become of the board exams. Competitive dumbing down of the board exams and mark inflation are familiar to most people There is massive cheating at every stage from writing the exam to corrections to recorrections.
In Tamilnadu some 95%+ of the questions are directly from the textbooks or from a Question Bank. In Maths, the questions are repeated without even changing the numbers! If this is a beacon for all schools and teachers, how can we ever fight rote learning? But the board and the government are also caught in a bind. If they attempt to increase the number of questions that involve some reasoning and is not directly from the textbooks or QB, there are huge protests from the parents and teachers. In states like Bihar, even if the education department tries to control copying there is protest from parents and teachers!
Further performance of the students in the board exams is considered as a proxy for how education is doing in the state. So every state wants to keep showing a steady increase in the percentage of children passing in the board exams. Average marks keeps increasing while education levels keep dropping.
Given the low quality of the board exams, admissions to courses that are in demand have started having their own entrance examinations. There is JEE (main and advanced) for engineering, NEET for medicine, NATA for art and architecture etc. Given the variations in the syllabus and testing methodology for these examinations, there has been an explosion of coaching classes. The costs of these and access to these are limited to the rich, urban children. This makes the system highly unfair.
There are people who argue against ranking exams as a whole. I am not one of them. Even in the best of circumstances, there are many problems with ranking examinations as the criteria for selection for higher education or jobs.
The coaching and other inputs that the privileged get over the under-privileged certainly makes ranking exams unfair.
Performance in exams has only a weak correlation with performance in higher education or jobs for which they are used as criteria.
Performance at the exams become the goal of education and the broader goals of education get sidelined.
But despite all this, “good” ranking exams serve their goals of being a beacon and in ranking the students reasonably well. Here is an article that talks about how SAT in US is fairer than a system without SAT.
However as stated earlier the problems with the exams in India are much more fundamental and these need to be eliminated.
Test actual learning instead of just the memorising ability. Other competitive exams are far better than the board exams in this matter.
Getting a high pass percentage should not be the yardstick for evaluating an education system. Having a lot youth with 12th std pass with no value for that doesn’t serve any purpose. A broader social dialogue is required to change this mindset.
Eliminate the huge number of exams and reduce it to a minimum. Most streams should base their admissions on the board exams. Only when there are significant quantifiable reasons, other competitive exams should be allowed. If there are exams that control access to a large sector of opportunities, training for this should also be made mandatory at all schools.
Education Surveys and Policy Making
Finally coming to goal 5, how is the government measuring the health of the education. As mentioned in the previous section, because of a lack of better survey, governments use the board exam results as a proxy for the state of education and therefore manipulate these exams to show improvement in education.
Standardised testing where the results are comparable across years is still nowhere to be seen in India. Some surveys are being done.
National Achievement Survey or NAS — This is conducted by NCERT. It is conducted at 3rd, 5th and 8th standard children once every three years. It is a sample survey and is conducted only at 5 schools in every district. The tests are designed well and test the learning levels as recommended by NCERT. The reports from NAS give the areas of strength and weaknesses for different states but doesnt go beyond that.
Tamilnadu conducts another State Level Achievement Survey or SLAS. The question papers till recently were developed by SCERT and were much worse than the NAS question papers and had direct reference to the text book material (i.e. did not test the curriculum knowledge but the textbook knowledge). But in the last year they changed the SLAS to also test with the same paper as NAS. This has a much bigger sample of 5 schools per block and is conducted every year but I am not sure what the reports contain. Their reports do not seem to be available publicly.
ASER by Pratham — Pratham an NGO started conducting ASER a survey to measure basic reading and arithmetic skills of children. Their findings were shocking. In most states majority of the children in 5th std couldn’t read a 2nd std text or do a division sum. Its simplicity communicates very powerfully as these are things that anyone can understand. Unfortunately the way this assessment is conducted is very subjective and this shows up in the wild swings in the results and the poor correlation with the much better conducted NAS.
You can read this article in Hindu that compares the results of NAS and ASER. This also talks about the results of India’s participation in PISA. India was represented by just two states (TN and HP) in the 2009 version of PISA. It ranked 87th out of 88 countries and then decided it will stop participating in PISA.
In short the assessments framework in India during the schooling years requires a massive overhaul. Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) that should be providing continuous information about the progress of the students to the teachers and to the students or their parents is corrupted beyond recognition and only survives in the reports it generates. There is no truth behind the data in these reports.
Board exams in most boards have become completely rote based and are competing to dumb themselves down and award more marks to their students. This creates the environment for a plethora of competitive exams and corresponding coaching classes. These make the system very unfair for the rural poor.
Broad surveys that aid a government in comparing the performance of the student population across years is still lacking. The closest available is for now Pratham’s ASER which is also flawed in many ways.
All these need to be addressed urgently to improve our education system.