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July 02, 2018 Monday 06:02:02 PM IST


Cover Story

Before the children go to the knackers, there is pre-exam advice on resilience, life skills, Emotional Quotient, and opportunities, besides the marks-don’t-matter perspective. But once the results are out, this changes to a whooping war dance of victory with the number of 90 percenters called out from rooftops, hoardings, andheadlines, not to mention Facebook.

Every year, this act of jubilation underlines the pressures on students and reinforces its stranglehold on all examination takers. It reminds them that the pre-exam pep talk is just talk! A few years ago, newspapers decided againstencouraging thissort of fanfare bynot putting out life stories of the successful top candidates after a spate of student suicides. But it was too hard for them to resist the populist roll-call of toppers for long. So, it wasback!

The number of failures is a reflection on the school boardsand their schools’ inability to deliver a good education and so no government worth its salt will risk it. Quite naturally, marks at the top of the pecking order amongthe privileged city-breds, in a norm-referenced test, balloon into awe-inspiring, impossible numbers such as 499/500 in such Board exams!

Why are parents not protesting? There is a mad rush for colleges which, in turn, are grossly insufficient in number to cater for a massive aspiring population that requires these inflated marks to secureadmissions into those hallowed portals. Parents experience a back dread from their own times where opportunities were scarce, and this translates into panic that is symbiotically absorbed by their children— as stress. The manyareas of alternative opportunities available in the job market today is given the go-by. It is a generational backlash of deep-seated insecurity at play.

This brings us to the problem of mediocrity. When marks or grades rather than competencies, values, or criteria become the unchallenged parameters of “academic success”, all preparation for it from pedagogy, textbooks, skills acquisition, and application of skills follow suit and is geared to ‘service’ an end examination.

Professional reviews of these factors for quality control are, therefore, token, random, or even non-existent. The tyranny of marks creates a tribal triumphalism of sorts where we embark on a self-defeatingjourney — one of producing masses of establishment clones for a labour force, that is ironically, we are told, by and large, unemployable! The well-heeled ones invariably take off forgreener shores.


Paradoxically, however, there is a parent-teacher-school conspiracy that will not let the education system change, even as they will all agree, vociferously, that change is essential. What follows, naturally, is an endorsement of every banal but convenient tradition or practice, and oftena reinstatement of status quo.

Thus children, who are orientated, prematurely, towards Board patterns in the primary and middle grades, are, in truth, being denied their normal developmental curve. Boards reinforce this by announcing common external tests in the lower grades, thus forcing schools to toe the syllabus line even as quality checks on the Boards themselves are far and few between.

Hoary and venerated institutions and their Old Boy’s clubs, equally caught in the race for top marks despite being aware of its intellectualvacuousness, do not make use of the leverage their voices or status have to uplift education by example. The schools, therefore, do not keep up with contemporary thought and practice and do not create a culture of cerebral enquiry and social commitment beyond the call of the unchallenged, prescribed syllabus.

Question is, how do we change this sortof indoctrination, jettisontheteachers’ time-tattered notes, and remove the fear an authoritarian school administratorinstils in a human being who has been conditioned to fear, obey, and follow authority unquestioningly. Such conditioning is sanctioned and validated by the marks syndrome.

Teachers are used to dictating notes as “models” to be regurgitated by the students diligently. Marks, forming a convenient façade, do not engender rigour, unlearning, or relearning. Reading complex materials, prepping before class for enquiry, debating democratically, extending peer arguments, and reflecting on the validity of the course or on the students’strengths and weaknessesare processes that are absent.

Often schools that start out with idealistic narratives of excellence, creative thinking, and character building, soon take the commercial route and embrace mass culture.

For example, the annual ranking of schools, carriedout by magazines or newspapers, hasno transparent parameters that are vetted by experts. Often, there is not even a visit to the school, nor are there any student and parent interviews. Rankings are sometimes sought after by both the giver and the taker for commercial gains. Schools use both percentages and ranks as baits to attract more students. In fact, some schools even ‘identify’students as potential rank material in furtherance of their ‘performance excellence’. Add to this, the role of tuition classes.In fact, few parentswant their children to go withoutprivate tuitions even long before the children actually enter the Board classes!

Education and enlightenment are not mutually exclusive. Children cannot be used as trophies by ambitious parents looking for the shortest of short cuts to the fattest meal ticket for their kid. They cannot be used by other adult stakeholders to make a living off them.

The questions to ask aresimple:Are we child-centred? Do we lend an ear to our children?Is the rigour good enough? Are the assessments valid and reliable? Can the child articulate ideas, preferences, cogitate, defend, and apply formulae to life? The lastquestion would bethe true test of a child’s calibre.

On the other hand, top percentages and thinkers are, again, not mutually exclusive. They needn’t be. But education should be about process, aptitude, competence, critical thinking, relevance to life, diversity, and differentiation.

More importantly, life actually begins after examinations and marks. There is university, and then jobs that need relationship and team skills, coping strategies, time management, problem solving, negotiation, perseverance, creativity, and emotional resilience for success.Are any of these represented in our syllabi? Do these top marks reflect a clear evaluation of these values?

That is the bottom line to think about.