My previous post suggesting that the govt of India invest heavily in education in order to provide internationally competitive higher education in India set me thinking about the issue.
Brace yourself. This is a long post, but straight from the heart.
The issue is not a simple one. At the micro level too there are serious problems to be surmounted. I guess this can be best explained by relating a couple of experiences as a teacher in the existing system.
After completing my research, I rejoined my college. I had to teach Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey Lines to the Final year BA English major students. With the recently acquired knowledge of the research methodology and tools that enabled one to break free of structured thinking, I tried to introduce a novel approach to the poem which for decades had been doled out to students in the same stereotyped and over simplified manner through the end number of cheap (in terms of price and quality) guides that were available a dime a dozen in the market. I gave a couple of titles which provided a different reading of Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. I was a fool not to have noticed the skepticism in the eyes of the students, even in the brilliant ones’. In a week’s time, a colleague told me confidentially that the students were complaining to the Head about my unconventional approach. Before the HOD pulled me up, I went back to age old interpretation of Tintern Abbey Lines, gave the probable essay questions and brief notes and gave the answers based on the most popular guide available in the market.
What my colleague told me quite unsettled me. I understand they complained to the HOD that if Miss Molly teaches the way she is doing, they’d all fail in the exams.
I’ll be eternally grateful to that lone student who came to me after I reverted to the accepted stereotyped style of teaching. She wanted me to go ahead with the way I’d started. She was amazed that there were other ways of looking at so canonical a poem as Tintern Abbey lines.
“The standard interpretation, we can get from any guide”, she had told me.
It was truly a vindication of what I believed but could not translate into practice on account of a systemic flaw in imparting education in our state.
These happened18 years back.
Just five years back, I ran into trouble again with my effort to update students’ learning process. I asked for an assignment to be done by the students themselves (and not by some typist) in the Microsoft Word. I insisted on bibliography and footnotes. I told them it did not matter how much cut & paste they did so long as they acknowledged it. I assured them if the entire work is cut and paste, I’d still give them marks for their skill in selecting and organizing facts in a coherent, logical manner. But I also told them(that was my undoing), that I’d give them only the marks they deserve, and that I’d fail them if they deserved to, and they would have to redo the assignment to my satisfaction if I were to give them pass mark. In other words, they had to EARN their marks.
I wasn’t aware of the seismic under currents triggered off by the project I gave them, till, the head of the institution who was a well wisher of mine called me quietly into the office and told me that there were complaints that I was harassing the students! I told her all I wanted was to give them a taste of doing an assignment using internet information in a sensible manner.
“You mean well. Our students are not ready for it (!!!!!!!!??????), she told me. ‘They feel this might affect their internal marks and put them at a disadvantage WITH the students of other colleges. Besides, they find it involved too much expense”!!!?
Once again I backtracked. Once again, I failed.
I can give you any number of such failures. Sometimes I wonder if I lacked conviction myself. That could be why I didn’t have the guts to pursue a task well begun.
But I console myself with the thought that I was fighting something much bigger than myself and did not possess the muscles for a one man army.
I was fighting to improve an educational system evolved to deal with astronomical numbers of students (unlike in the US or Britain or Australia). I was trying to beat a system which had to resort to and continue to follow the colonial legacy of the affiliatory system, in order to keep track of and control the management of the Himalayan task of subsidizing and educating the huge number of students who flooded into colleges after Independence. The ideal thing at that point of time was to dismantle the exiting system which was meant to produce good and obedient servants of the empire, and evolve a new system more suited to the post colonial India. But we chose to continue the existing one which by the time independent India took over had become fossilized into a partially effective system. Renovation of a structure is more difficult than building a new one. The ad hoc improvements and improvisation did not really make much of a difference for the better.
To make matters worse, in the post colonial era, in Kerala state, people became so intensely conscious of their rights that the universities and colleges became the hotbed of union activities - a fact which tied the hands of successive governments in bringing about changes, particularly in the examination /evaluation system, which I honestly believe is to be blamed in a major way for the failure of our education.
My shameful failures in the episodes I mentioned earlier too were on account of the examination system we have in place in the colleges today.
The examination system in most universities and their affiliated colleges is flawed. It doesn’t really test the quality and learning of the students. The absolute predictability of the question papers is the villain of the piece. The students seem to think that it is their right to be tested by a given pattern year after year. This is how it works:
The university designs syllabus for a course. Within a month’s time, the market becomes flooded with guides which identify all probable questions and gives answers – for essays \ brief notes.
Then at the end of the year, the appointed paper setters for university exams make questions as per the universities prescribed question paper pattern. These paper setters, I am sad to say, have in their possession all the popular guides from which they, more often than not, choose questions. Any question that requires intelligent use of knowledge acquired during the course of study would instantly raise a hue and cry from the students, teachers, parents and unions. The university then gives instruction to examiners to go lenient on that particular question. The leniency is usually in the form of minimum pass mark for that particular question.
Predictable question, predictable answers. These are the rights of the students respected by all universities. The system is such that the intelligent student can pass with flying colours with minimum learning. Originality in answers is dangerous. So teachers – both in science and humanities – teach from “the examination point of view”. Everybody is happy with this teaching. Students, because there is no demand on their intellects or skills and the effort they need to put in is minimum; teachers ‘cos readymade material is available and the examination results enhance their egos; colleges because their students produce good results and the credibility and rating of the college go up.
The spoon feeding method suits all.
The casualty, of course, is education, one purpose of which is to inculcate that grand passion for research and knowledge.
A decade back, the universities introduced the internal assessment practice by which 20-25 % marks was given by continuous assessment through the year. The intentions were good. It was an effort to give room and importance to original work, performance of student in the course of the year and to make up for the flaw in the existing examination system. But now this has become the biggest hoax. In addition to adding to the teachers ‘workload for no good purpose, it contributes to lowering standards in a big way. Every college issues a fatwa to its teachers to give minimum pass mark to all students and not to fail them at any cost. If one college decides to follow the spirit of Internal Assessment system, it will reflect on the overall examination results of the college. Students from that college who deserve “UNIVERSITY RANKS’ (indicators of the quality of the college) will have to make way to less deserving ones from other colleges on account of the conscientious policy of the college.
So the entire process of internal assessment is a huge farce, whereby substandard submissions and test papers ultimately earn the student a minimum of 12/20. Another 20 marks in the university exams and the student passes! Border line cases enjoy moderation as a matter of policy. It brings credit to the state government that so many pass percentages are registered every year during its term.
I have heard stories of student union leaders threatening teachers who wish to mark fairly for internal assessments!
This is only one millionth of the tip of the iceberg of flaws that beleaguers the Indian Universities. As I mentioned earlier, the difficulty of dealing with huge numbers and the burden of subsidizing education in the country has watered down the system of education.
Despite this, our graduates fare exceedingly well in non Indian universities.
Perhaps, the system has inculcated a never say die attitude and a capacity to learn in our youngsters that make them fare well outside.
We need to investigate and find out what it is that makes our students tick outside India, and build on our strengths.
The infrastructure, though flawed, is there. We need to fine tune it, up grade it so that our graduates will not have to leave the country to seek higher education in countries where they become victims of racial discrimination.
Only a commitment, political will and depoliticisation of educational field can enable the government of India to address this issue effectively.