It’s Plain Murder, By Rote
Is the teaching in our schools actually educating our children? Not really, according to a few grim surveys...
- 73: India’s ranking, just above Kyrgyzstan, in a study of 74 countries on maths, science and reading
- 90%: Students in Himachal Pradesh who lack baseline reading literacy, 89 per cent lag in science
- 60%: Students in India’s top private schools show lack of sensitivity towards AIDS victims
- 10%: The drop in arithmetic ability nationally of Class V children in rural areas
***Which of the following is true: nearly 10 per cent of Class 4 students in top urban Indian schools believe that Mahatma Gandhi is alive. In Tamil Nadu, only 15 per cent students in the 15-year age group are skilled in maths. About three-fourths of Class 3 students in rural India can’t solve two-digit subtraction problems.
All true. How did you score?
Three recent reports—Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), the Programme For International Students Assessment (PISA) and the Quality Education Study (QES) by Wipro and Educational Initiatives—serve a gloomy, telling reality check, busting some long-held stereotypes about the strengths of Indian students. The smart Indian techie, the world-beating Indian students at spelling bee contests and math quizzes, the brainy, high-IQ geniuses at Ivy League colleges, are they all a thing of the past? The new breed seem to portend a horrifying tale: not only are our kids not getting any smarter, they actually seem to know less than their peers from a few years ago.
|“We don’t have a clear vision. We are merely tasting new flavours, not changing anything fundamentally.” Maya Menon, Director, The Teacher Foundation||“What we need is a paradigm shift in the way that we teach as well as in the way that our children learn.” Kapil Sibal, HRD minister|
|“The IT-MBA boom’s taken the best students from science, maths. India has very little cutting-edge research today.”S.R. Srinivasa Varadhan, Professor of Mathematics, NYU||“Just setting up more schools and spending money will not bridge the fundamental gap. We need to set standards.” Rukmini Banerji, Director-Programmes, Pratham|
|“Students today need to work twice as hard to achieve the same results students did a few years ago.” Anand Kumar, Founder, Super 30||“A lot of exciting work is happening on the ground. The use of technology in classrooms looks promising.” Shantanu Prakash, Founder, Educomp|
That may not seem like such a good idea anymore. After all, top private schools tested by the QES have revealed a serious lack of basic skills in students, pointing towards a sociological shift in attitudes towards learning. “The real culprit for the decline in learning are changes in lifestyle, where entertainment has taken the space of education,” says IIT computer science professor Sanjiva Prasad. India’s traditional urban middle-class ethos of a single-minded approach to academics is under threat with the post-liberalisation generation of parents and their growing children, say some sociologists. “Schooling is not at the centre of their lives. They have so many distractions—social gaming, social networking, hanging out with friends—and it all takes away from learning,” says sociologist Meenakshi Thapan. But all the networking with the outside world has not helped in changing some deep-seated prejudices. According to the QES findings, the societal biases of children in private schools in the metros are rather glaring. For example, nearly half of Class 8 students in top private schools in the cities feel that girls needn’t go to school. Says Vyjayanthi Sankar of the Ahmedabad-based Educational Initiatives, who conducted the QES with Wipro, “Unless we inspire our kids to think on their own, they won’t think around these biases, and society is not going to get better.”
That can come only with a complete overhaul in how we teach. For instance, the PISA research finds that the Indian curriculum covers more topics, compared to, say, the UK or Australian syllabus, which provides students with a broad learning base, so they are able to respond well to questions where they need to retrieve information. But where they have to interpret and integrate, most Indian students find it a challenge. “This has an impact on the quality of human resource. Students may get employed easily, but what about the quality?” asks Ratna Dhamija, manager, Australian Council for Educational Research in India, which conducts the PISA test. That’s a serious concern, particularly for the future of maths and science. Is the land of C.V. Raman and Srinivas Ramanujan drying up? “The power of education has increased,” says Anand Kumar of the well-known IIT coaching centre Super 30 in Patna, “but knowledge levels have dropped,” he says. So much so that he has had to double the number of classes at his institute in the last year, from three days a week to six. “Today’s students have to work twice as hard, as their basics in subjects like mathematics aren’t strong enough.”
So, yes, we are losing the edge in pure sciences and mathematics, and academicians also see a decline in cutting-edge research in India. In 2010, China published about 10 lakh scientific papers whereas India could muster up only about two lakh. “Schools are pushing a large number of students to take entrance exams for professional schools. As a result, students are not motivated to pursue academic work in mathematics and the sciences. They enter these fields as an alternative when they fail to get into the professional schools,” says Varadhan. Even at professional schools, however, the levels of learning are slipping. At IIT, for instance, there is a lot of variability in the top 150-200 ranking candidates. “A small number is outstanding, but others struggle to pass the basic math and computing courses, and there is a general decline in language, writing and proof skills over the last 10 years,” says Prasad.