If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 4 May 2012

What ails our education system?

A recent article in the Guardian[1] on what works and what doesn't to improve exam performance of school children discusses some research findings that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. The research was conducted by Durham University. The issues are worth considering because the research deals with problems that are universal. The main findings are as follows:

Reducing class sizes and setting homework for primary school children are among the least effective ways to raise standards. The benefits of reducing class sizes “are not particularly large or clear, until class size is reduced to under 20 or even below 15”.

Secondly, the benefits of homework are modest. The optimum time spent doing homework for secondary school children is one to two hours per school day, but the benefits tail off as the amount of time increases, and there is little benefit in primary school pupils doing homework.

Thirdly, one of the most effective uses of a teacher's time is in giving good feedback – which should be sparing, specific and encouraging. It is "more important to give feedback about what is right than what is wrong," researchers say. It is also best to praise a particular task that has been accomplished well rather than praise a pupil with phrases like "good girl".

Finally, Students should be encouraged to develop independent "learning strategies" and to learn from each other. Teachers should encourage pupils to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own learning.

While this report focuses on schools, let me enlarge the context and include the parents’ role too, with a particular reference to India. Let’s recall the incontrovertible fact that education, like charity, begins at home. If parents mismanage the early childhood training of their offspring, it is difficult to undo the damage later. 

Bringing up children is one of the most complex tasks humans perform. But a lot of parents have not the vaguest idea about how to go about it and in fact, just sleepwalk through this onerous task. Let me share a personal experience. One afternoon, I was on a crowded public bus. A boy of about ten in school uniform sat splay-legged on a seat. His mother stood by his side, although there was enough room for her to share the seat. She was even carrying his bag! A little later, an elderly woman approached the boy and requested him to move aside and make room for her. Son didn’t budge, and mother shouted, ‘It’s my seat. I have left it for him!’ This scene was repeated several times as new unsuspecting people – mostly women – got onto the bus and approached the child.

Although such insensitivity is rare, the general standard of parenting is not much better. In my city, parents often enroll their children in presumably good schools far away from their homes. It is a common practice among young mothers to accompany the offspring to school, spend the entire school hours hanging around and gossiping with other moms, and return home in the evening. In the process, the child – s/he is more likely to be a single child – learns that s/he is the fulcrum around which the family revolves. It won’t be their fault if they grow up into selfish and cussed individuals.

If we may move over from ethical training to academic training, many Indian parents – from Kolkata to Kochi – would be scandalized if their secondary school children were not allowed to do more than “one to two hours” of homework. For us, the motto seems to be: the more the merrier. And what matters are grades, not education. The goal is not learning, but enrolment in premier colleges. Dependence on “private tuition”, the most pernicious system invented to kill the student’s initiative, follows naturally. Every evening, one sees children carrying heavy bags scurrying from one tuition centre to another, at a time when they ought be in a playground. In the process, the child loses two things.

The twenty-first century Indian child does not know much of the fun and frolic of childhood, and as they grow up, their faculty to think independently atrophies through lack of use. Once I asked my first year students at an engineering college to write down their personal strategies about how to improve their English. The first assignment that I read was by a student with limited English competency. But the language of his submission was impeccable; it had been written by his private tutor! So much for students “planning, monitoring, and evaluating” their own learning! You may say that one cannot generalize a specific experience. But if you talk with college teachers in india, you will realize that a majority of students just cannot “think”. The situation is bad, and our planners and administrators do not seem to be aware of the problem. Therefore, there is no reason to hope that the situation will change for the better in the foreseeable future.

Imagine a situation when secondary school students will not focus on solving innumerable problems of mathematics or physics in milliseconds, and instead will focus on the concepts behind the problems … when students, instead of “learning” a language, will focus on “using” the language creatively.  Imagine a situation when the best of our graduate students who wish to do research are not selected through a test that asks inane multiple-choice questions, but based on evaluation of real merit. It may never happen, but if it did, a necessary precondition would be that students were “encouraged to develop independent learning strategies and to learn from each other”.

You may say I am a dreamer, but hopefully, I am not the only one.

[1] 21 June 2012


  1. Santanuda
    Very well written .Single child is the norm in today's world .Most children are not even taught the basic duties of caring for their near ones.Parents send their kids to distant schools and when they grow up, to distant cities to give them a wider and better exposure. Rich parents pay huge sums of money to get their kids admitted to foreign universities. In most cases these kids are pretty average and completely confused and selfish lot.It is high time we revamp our education systems.

  2. Shantanuda,
    In the context,Education is the personal wealth of a person,which can not be abducted by anyone by hook or by crook.This innovative design is to lead the education system & style,in days to come.
    Haplessly,in modern society education has been misinterpreted,as such,to get a handsome employment and happy lives with their families only.Is this the ulterior motive of education(?)
    In fact,we are getting educated guess for purification of mind and arises to dawn after dark.
    Moreover,where teachers are the pedestal of the educational institution there students are held by them preventing their fall.
    Incidentally, everybody would get to have a confounded with a meager standard of background which have introduced by the appropriate authorities,Result in, Poor quality in education and students career in dark future.
    In passing, we have forgotten the talents in West Bengal as teacher,lecturer,professor and etc.,those who uphold their sovereignty and integrity in their service to nation.Alias!such personality are not seen indeed in W.B.
    Side by side, our education system is not up to the standard so as to contest with different states and syllabus is not upto the mark,not contemplating to contest widely.
    Apparently, it is visible that, unless and until the political hues to stop to advocate in introducing for such post at their self interest till, such despair will be continued.
    And also, we still puppet for such unparalleled,in days to come.
    with regards,

  3. Thanks, Indrani and Suman. Things are horribly wrong, but I believe they are going to change for the better. That we and so many others are thinking is a reason to believe, isn't it?

  4. Santanu, that's a profound piece on the deplorable plight of education in our country. Fortunately,we, the 'senior citizen' generation were brought up in an entirely different manner.

    Those days, education meant much more than scoring high marks in the exams. We were taught to be decent, selfless, helpful, compassionate and loving human beings. It wasn't just the teachers who 'educated'us. Our parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and even neighbours too played a crucial role in shaping us.

    This 'education' that we received is etched in stone in our hearts and minds. Our teachers may not have been B.A, B.Eds but they had a gift that seems to be pitifully lacking in teachers these days. I'm talking of the sheer love and passion to teach! Our teachers went beyond our textbooks to enrich our young minds.

    At home, our parents guided us by imparting high moral values for us to emulate.

    I finished my schooling in 1966. Yet, forty six long years later, I still remember the names of EVERY teacher who taught me. I just have to shut my eyes and think of them for the faces of these noble souls to appear in front of me.

    Do the students these days even bother to remember the names of the previous year's teachers? Having said that, it may not be the fault of the children alone. The fault lies with the teachers! What is the calibre of the average teacher in a school these days? Apart from 'finishing the portions' in time for the exams, what do they teach?

    I help a 5th Std schoolboy with his English. I was pleasantly surprised by the textbook. But pleasant surprise turned to sheer shock! The book has exyremely interesting short stories by Ruskin Bond. The teacher had not bothered to tell the students that an 'owlet' is a baby owl. She had wrongly taught them that it a type of owl!

    With teachers who are only bothered about their paycheque and the parents placing the onus on the schools and teachers, what we see today is a generation totally devoid of any social skills.

    Their parents are probably very thrilled that they're scoring the expected high marks. What sort of human beings will they grow up to be? Who cares!

  5. Very true. The 'knowledge-span' of today's child does not go back beyond ten years in the past,and as far as creative imagination is concerned, it can reach out of tomorrow's horizon.

  6. Well said sir. Thought provoking article and quite true.
    We mass produce these engineers and doctors and still our contributions seem to be so limited.
    Let me give you an example from my domain. Probably half of all the software enginners in the world is from India. However we dont have even one flagship software product, we can be proud of.. Some thing like, windows, or excel or word or google or facebook? why?

    Answer is in your article. In the process of mass producing these engineers, we kill their intuition, independent and creative thinking.

    Aint looking good!


  7. A big thank you to Ganesh, Sujith and my anonymous friend. You have made some exceedingly thought-provoking remarks. Sujith, your reference to the software industry is a revelation for me.

    This morning, as I was trying to respond to some of the comments, I wrote down approximately 700 words. So I posted it as another article. I will look forward to your views on that.


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.