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Updated: December 13, 2011 00:11 IST

Learning by rote prevalent in top schools too

K. Venkataramanan
Comment (31)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
Are children like them getting quality education in
India? Photo: K.R. Deepak
Are children like them getting quality education in India? Photo: K.R. Deepak

Some children are showing a disturbing insensitivity to social issues, says a WIPRO-EI study.

Among Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, who is still alive? Only a little over a third of class 4 students interviewed as part of a five-city school survey in India got this one right, with a small percentage saying it is Mahatma Gandhi. As many as two-thirds of students, also from class 4, who were asked to state the length of a pencil — placed against a ruler — could not give the right answer.

Nearly half the students in classes 4, 6 and 8 thought the shape of a square object would change if it is tilted. And about 45 per cent of students in these classes seemed to believe that a spider has six legs, despite the arthropod being described or named as ‘eight-legged' in almost all Indian languages.

These findings are not based on responses from underprivileged children going to State-funded schools in rural areas. These are drawn from 89 of the country's top schools, each of which had a library, a laboratory and enough computers, and 93 per cent stated they had internet facilities. And 63 per cent of the parents of these children hold a degree, post-graduate degree or doctorate, and more than 41 per cent of the fathers were into their own business.

The significance of this study is that it shows that even the country's top schools exhibit signs of rote learning. And in their formative years, children in primary and upper primary classes show “lower sensitivity” and “demonstrate lack of progressive thought” on issues related to gender equality, acceptance of diversity and in civic responsibilities.

In a telling instance, 40-43 per cent of students in classes 4, 6 and 8 felt that education for a girl is not as important as her responsibility towards her family; and in another, nearly 60 per cent of students showed less acceptance towards immigrants from other States, as they felt that “immigrants have to conform to the State's traditions, take away jobs from natives and also are a source of communal disagreements.”

On the academic side, the performance of class 4 students was below international average, but by the time they reach class 8, they are on a par with the global average. And even here, it is due to doing better in answering questions that require straightforward use of techniques or learnt procedures and not those that tested their conceptual understanding. Another significant finding is that misconceptions acquired in lower classes continue in higher classes without any correction.

The extent of the study

These are some of the findings of a ‘Quality Education Study' (QES) by Wipro and Educational Initiatives (EI), covering 23,000 students, 790 teachers and 54 principals from 89 schools across the country. While the study aimed at expanding the understanding of ‘quality' in school education and attributes of a sound learning environment, it has thrown up interesting insights into learning outcomes both in terms of scholastic performance and student attitudes towards various social issues.

Eighty-three ‘top schools' from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore, as identified in a public opinion survey in 2006 by Wipro-EI as part of their ‘Students' Learning in Metros Study' in these five cities were chosen for the study. Six more schools, out of 10 identified by experts, as learning environments that needed to be included, were also roped in. These 89 had agreed to participate in the study out of 255 that the study team approached. A sub-sample of 16 schools was chosen for focus group discussions.

Another salient feature of the QES is that student performance seems to have fallen since 2006, when a study on learning in the metros was done. While 64 schools were common to both studies, students performed lower in QES, with the fall being more pronounced in mathematics (in both classes 4 and 6) and English (class 8).

On critical thinking

Drawing a correlation between the students' lack of critical thinking and their views on social issues, the study says, “Rote learning is often deceptive and passes off as apparent learning, but does not let students develop higher order thinking skills such as critical thinking, creativity and application. Students who do not develop these skills also will not be able to think rationally and discriminate between what is good or bad in various social and ecological issues being faced today.”

Responding to a question on HIV infection, nearly 40 per cent of students of class 8 either said HIV positive people should be avoided as one could get infected by going near them or that they should not be allowed to use public facilities such as pumps and toilets. Only 37.5 per cent said HIV positive people are capable of participating in everyday life like those with any other disease. In a question related to citizenship issues, 18.6 per cent of students said they would vote on the basis of caste affiliation, while 60 per cent chose either a candidate who promised development or one who worked for the underprivileged.

In similar questions concerning the environment and traffic rules, the ideal answer that would show that students are aware of their civic responsibilities eluded more than half the students interviewed. Of course, the trend improves as one moved to the higher classes, but the study's authors feel that schools are not doing enough to address the problem. It was possible that the students are not evolving their own thinking and discrimination, or that they are mimicking opinions that society or their families may have on social issues. “Some of them indicate a bias that may over time grow into prejudices,” warns the report.

The study recommends a large-scale awareness campaign among schools on notions of quality, as “while there may be many notions on what constitutes quality education, there is likely to be unanimous agreement in that schools should be places where students develop holistically.” It suggests a structured process of speaking to children and carefully listening to their answers to understand the thinking behind student responses to different social, cultural, civic and ecological issues.

Recalling that the National Curriculum Framework says education must promote and nourish a wide range of capabilities in our children such as the performing arts, painting, crafts, literary abilities and ability to bond with nature, the study says: “schools are not able to devote more than 19 per cent of school time to co-scholastic activities. Principals confirmed that while co-scholastic areas are very relevant, in practice, not much emphasis is placed on these in the curriculum.”

Takeaway from the study

Sreekanth Sreedharan, Manager, WIPRO Applying Thought in Schools, a WIPRO initiative for school education reform, concedes that some negativity flows from the report, and agrees that students should not be judged too harshly based on this study. However, after the study, one gets a feel of what kind of education one gets in the elite schools in the country. “In the public discourse, there is a feeling that everything is fine in private schools, but this study helps us understand where we stand on three aspects: how our students tackle conceptual questions, how they fare in comparison with international standards, and whether learning has improved or fallen over a period of time within the country.”

He says the questions were framed in line with international standards and on a par with similar studies abroad. “They are assessed age-appropriately. In fact, we are comparing the best in India with the average in OECD countries,” he says, referring to studies such as the ‘Progress in Reading Literacy Study' (PIRLS).

The first step

Vyjayanthi Sankar, a Vice President in Educational Initiatives, who led the research and analysis team that executed the study for EI, an educational research organisation, says: “What is meant by quality education? Do children in our schools learn with understanding, are they developing holistically and also acquiring values like sensitivity and concern for others? What would one find in quality learning environments in terms of school leadership, teaching learning practices, classroom climate, etc? The study was a first step towards addressing some of these concerns.”

Salient features

Even top schools exhibit rote learning

Performance of class 4 below international average, but class 8 on a par

Students perform better on procedural questions, but not conceptual ones

Misconceptions of lower classes carried through to higher classes

Fall in learning/performance since previous study in 2006

Some students show lower sensitivity on social issues such as gender equality and religious/cultural diversity

Signs of bias that may grow over time into prejudices

Awareness campaign recommended in schools to dislodge biases

Classrooms where physical punishment is not practised show higher performance

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Quality education still elusiveDecember 16, 2011

I join the group of Susheela. One point I would add - Some of the teachers rather majority were exposed to only such teachers when they were students.It's not going to be an easy job to not only EI but for any educationist who is trying to do something for the present generation after filling up their pockets.Hats off to the friend in need for these students - The Computers - T.V. of kids, students, and teachers too. yet to see the full and proper use of this MARVEL Visual Education. Let me save my matter there may be a power shut down I mean Electrical THE PROOF OF THE PROCESS IS IN THE RESULTS IT PRODUCES.WE NEED EXCELLENCE AND NOT EXPLANATIONS. WE NEED RESULTS AND NOT REASONS. ACTIONS ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE SPEAKS (again speaks!) LOUDER THAN WORDS. NOW IN TAMILNADU OR NEVER TAMILNADU LIVES IN VILLAGES !!!!!!!SHYAMALA FROM SIVAGANGAI.

from:  shyamalavenkatesan
Posted on: Dec 26, 2011 at 08:58 IST

Its a great effort by Wipro to carry out such a study, it is truly shocking.I read some of the comments and I don't think it is right of my friends to blame the school, teachers or the so called private institutions only. I talk from the point of view of a teacher, teaching is a so called big building private institution. Our children are raised in nuclear families where they hardly see any social responsibility being shouldered by their parents. Secondly these children are raised with a silver spoon in their mouth, they never see beyond their PSPs, XBox or Ipads, a toy which only gives them isolated entertainment, their is no means to develop team work, sharing or empathy. Thirdly we have still have an educational system which is going through a transition of moving from an exam based school to activity based schools. A transition where resource people are few and expensive. Lets not blame the children but create a holistic society rich with value system.

from:  Kavita Madan
Posted on: Dec 25, 2011 at 23:02 IST

I fully agree with Mayur in the last point. I say this with my
experience as a Principal of a School. The expectations are never met as
most of the teachers are only "working as a teacher". There is no
passion nor zeal in the job, The reason maybe that very FEW willingly
become teachers. For others it would have just happened. Its a pity for
the present generation which has to be attended immediately by
EVERYBODY.

from:  Susheela
Posted on: Dec 23, 2011 at 14:52 IST

The first learning school is our home .Parents are teachers in our initial stage.We talk about flaws in our educational system but there is lot more to say.Parents try in those schools which have good infrastructure with a fame.In today's world teachers are practical and parents are busy.Your foundation should be strong,parents and teachers both together should work sincerely to get a lucrative results.Then in later stages we send our children to coaching classes to get better results.

from:  Alka Khullar
Posted on: Dec 17, 2011 at 14:55 IST

Well, the point, which I feel, is missed generally is - teaching is one of the most under paid jobs in India. Lot of us know we do not have a great education system (the one that was started by the British, primarily, to make clerks). But, lack aspiration to be teachers(who can work towards changing it). Its undoubtedly not very lucarative. Probably, making people aspire to be teachers would bring about some change to the system.

from:  Mayur Lanka
Posted on: Dec 15, 2011 at 19:41 IST

In a land where institutions like "Sri Chaitanya" and "Narayana" and what not grow rampantly and where they have almost bought everybody starting from the lowly peon, all the way to the top of the academicians' ladder, the future of india's education surely looks grim. We are slowly becoming habituated to being slaves. Even graudates from IIT in the end go after a job instead of becoming entrepreneurs. this is a very bleak and depressing vision of the future of India, the land where employees are mass manufactured.

from:  Naveen Noah Jason
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 18:28 IST

A lot has been said about the flaws. What is important is are we going to continue to make the same blunders. We need to move from identifying a problem to finding a solution. One simple solution is as parents we need to stop looking at buildings and infrastrutures of the so-called good schools and ask more on the content of the syllabus. It is very important to understand that we as parents and teachers need to start working at the base. The base should be stronger during the foundation years. I don't think it is difficult to achieve the result if it is taken one step at a time. Don't look at a complete changed education system 3 or 5 years from now. Sow the seed now to reap the benifits later. The idea should be to involve the children in the learning process which generally is firgotten.

from:  Lata Y.
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 14:27 IST

Vyjayanthi Sankar's point about "quality education" is an important issue to be considered by all schools.Since the basics and the root of school education is not strong,students are facing a lot difficult when they get in to graduation especially the professional courses.This is where Mr.Narayana Murthy's stand on the quality of "IITs" has diminished comes.This is the reason why lot of students join coaching classes,the imagination and think-ability of studets is decreasing.

from:  Ratheesh
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 08:47 IST

It can open the eyes of the people who blindly oppose general education
systems of each state .some parents educate their children just to show
off in front of others

from:  Jose Mathew
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 20:10 IST

Two points that I do disagree with, as far as the conclusions go, are:
"Signs of bias that may grow over time into prejudices", &
"Some students show lower sensitivity on social issues such as gender
equality and religious/cultural diversity".
I don't think it's correct to judge class 4 children by these
parameters. Though children should be sensitized about these, a lack
of them at such a young stage is not enough reason for presuming the
negative conclusions drawn here. This is a very young stage and many
of them will understand better when they are grown up. Many kinds of
prejudices, besides the ones mentioned, exist at this stage.

from:  S Kumar
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 14:06 IST

On the whole,this is hardly surprising as the aim of the children in
these institutes is same as those from public schools in less fortunate
parts of the country,which is getting 90%+ marks in their exams, get
into a top institute by slogging as much as possible and live a happily-
ever-after life with a 6 fig.salary,as has been drilled into them by
parents and, often teachers.And, I can say this with confidence because
I passed out from one of the,so considered, best schools of Delhi. The
principal and often teachers(barring a few) used to "inspire" us by
telling about so-&-so alumni earning so-&-so much at some top corporate
place.The classes were merely about solving each and every problem
fluently from the CBSE books; because "the CBSE board questions are
never from outside the book".So,even if you just know the book by heart,
without knowing the subtleties of the topic, you will get 100%. And,
from the conversations I have had with my friends from other schools,
they were the same.

from:  S Kumar
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 14:00 IST

After reading many of the excellent comments, I have some points to make. I see no point blaming the teachers, students, parents and the schools for this malaise. After all, it is the school boards who set the broad pedagogical direction by deciding the syllabus and the examination patterns. The rest of the stakeholders - schools, teachers, students, parents - are merely working within this broad setup. The schools tell their teachers to teach the prescribed syllabus and prepare their students for the exams. The students get their priorities from their teachers and the parents see doing well in >exams as synonymous with learning. However, what can school boards do differently? While I agree with the positive pedagogical changes that many commenters prescribe, they require well-trained, committed teachers to implement. Any educational system that requires "inspired" teachers, like any political system that depends on "honest" politicians, for its functioning, is doomed from the start.

from:  Ram
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 13:32 IST

"A child learns only through mimicking what it observes with out understanding" says one comment by M.R.Sampath. This theory of "mug-up-now-understand-later" comes up often when I discuss this topic with friends. There is some truth to this; children can learn by rote in the early years and start to understand everything better when they are older. I think that this is what happened to me when I studied. But learning-by-rote and understanding concepts are not mutually exclusive - they can go together. Indeed I've seen it with children growing up in the west; they reason better, argue better; they understand the concepts and not just the names and definitions of the concepts.
Further, the potential downside to "mug-up-now-understand-later", is it is very hard for the child to be enthusiastic about learning anything. I do think therefore that our Indian education should strive for a balance of both understanding and some amount of rote-learning.

from:  Ram
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 11:43 IST

1. The examination system itself is not at fault but evaluating just rote devoid of understanding or meaningful feedback is.I know children who voluntarily take up Olympiads or ASSET because they challenge them to think.But remember, such exams are not every child's piece of cake.Fear of exams comes only in high stake exams or due to parental pressure. 2. Rote learning or memorising is also necessary because if you do not know, you cannot apply.Knowing is the first step to understanding; understanding builds further knowledge.They both go hand in hand.Many Indian students who go for higher studies abroad do well;here they learn the discipline;there they are encouraged to use it.Lack of good institutes for higher learning is the problem in India. 3. Medium of instruction in most private schools is not the mother tongue.Drawbacks due to this maybe are neutralised by the 8th grade.Similar study conducted in UK proved that Asians who were underdogs in primary outsmarted in high school.

from:  Bhuvana
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 11:35 IST

This study only proves the rigidity of the people from EI and wipro applying thoughts in school not to re-look at their own assumptions about how children learn? what is the natural and biological basis for cognition, what would be natural for children o learn etc. We are trying to fit a square plug in a round hole (?). Isn't it time to actually see how children learn, what is their inherent potential etc. It is more important to study the cognitive damages that schooling has done to the so called educated who are the ones who lack creativity, sensitivity, intelligence etc.We have been just imitating the west in every aspect. There is hardly any origial study in this country. So echoing what Tolstoy said while trying to teach peasant children may be we should reverse the process and learn from children about creativity, co operation, generosity,innocence and spontaneity. Check out reimaginingschools.wordpress.com for an initiative which respects the biological possibilities in children.

from:  Jinan
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 11:16 IST

Schools, Principals or Teachers can alone be held responsible for the present teaching pattern practiced in most of the schools? The expectations of the parent’s too has a very decisive role in determining the teaching style within the classrooms. It is very unfortunate that in the present era which offers unlimited opportunity to every child (as compared to pre globalization era) to develop to his/her fullest potential, most of the dreams are crushed early in life by the aspirations of parents. If children do not perform well parents blame teachers and the school. In today’s competitive world educational institutions are striving to save their entities and thus end up producing students which are in demand by the top educational institutions/industries rather than making human beings who are capable of understanding, have greater sensitivity and tolerance towards life, society and nature.

from:  Minal
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 11:14 IST

"nearly 60 per cent of students showed less acceptance towards immigrants from other States, as they felt that “immigrants have to conform to the State's traditions, take away jobs from natives and also are a source of communal disagreements.”" -- Leading questions such as these are just divisive and plant seeds of disharmony in young minds. If these kids were not asked these questions, it is highly unlikely that they would have these thoughts by themselves.

from:  C.G.Senthilkumar.
Posted on: Dec 13, 2011 at 02:14 IST

I am constantly amazed by how many women opt for teaching as a "convenient" job especially after marriage, and are not particularly driven by any passion for teaching or imparting education - some of them also view the job as a means to gain admission for their children in the school which is a reflection on the school admission process and lack of enough schools as well. As a woman, I fully understand the need to earn and be independent and contribute to family/society. However, as a parent, I question this attitude if it means that the lack of passion affects my child's learning. Or even contributes to the burgeoning private tuition industry. While major dailies and the media pick up these kind of studies and attention for a while, I would like to know what is being done to provide job options for qualified women (and men as well) to pursue flexible jobs in other spheres, leaving the teaching career open for those seriously interested and passionate about it.

from:  Namitha
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 19:38 IST

An article critiquing rote learning should not have started by highlighting how bad students are with facts and general awareness oth of which do not address analytical or creative faculties of students.

from:  Ancheri Sreekumar
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 17:48 IST

In those days a lots of pressure on children of their exams ,unit test , minors and then majors. They didn't get time to really understand the subject, they just learn without know it application.
Our current education system have this basic flaw. Instead of spending more time on exams, spent time on understanding things, so that one can use the knowledge in their day to day activities and be a responsible person. If one can understand the concept of experimenting things, then one would never be fail in life.

from:  Jag Mohan
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 17:19 IST

This is a certainly revealing study. All for the parents who are insulated on what goes on in school except the marks that the children bring home.
If all adults inside the education system and those influencing it can just listen to children, and allow them to learn through as many senses as possible which is what they are craving for - an experiential learning environment, process and self evaluation rather than fear filled examinations (including those conducted on the sly by schools in the name of Continuous Evaluation system)

from:  Vidya Shankar
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 17:08 IST

Good article.
The fact that deficiencies evened out by 8th standard does not mean that the deficiency at standard 4 has to be tolerated. At least in my time, schools perceived to be elite detained weak students at lower grades. May be such detention, along with pushing by parents, evens out the differences by 8th. But the pushing by parents lowers the intrinsic curiosity of students and hence, they fail to study when they are out of effective supervision.

from:  Sanket
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 15:47 IST

As a RTI activist I asked the Tamilnadu Govt Education dept where the govt school teachers educated their children and the data collected showed that 90% of them sent their children to private schools only. The article shows the dismal picture of the private schools. Taking thousands of rupees in salaries, the govt school teachers denigrate the schools where they work. Both the govt and private schools are not doing the job of "holistically" developing the child. No wonder the duplicity of the school teachers is reflected in our society that is full of dupemasters, humbugs, and liars.

from:  chandrasekar
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 15:41 IST

The development of India depends upon many socio-economic indicators and one among them,rather important, is education. The cited study reveals the role played by the educational institutions in educating the child in his or her initial years of cognitive development.The study also reveals the possible implications of the present system of education.So need of the hour is to make education wholistic in nature.The efforts should also be taken to reform the selection of teachers as well. The teachers who are well efficient in explaining concepts, taken into account the realistic examples from the Indian society should be given preference.At the same time,the preference should be given to those who make education an enjoyment process. It is not only what one learns,that matters, but also how one learns,which is equally important

from:  Bhagat
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 14:57 IST

A child learns only through mimicking what it observes with out
understanding. This process is exhibited through the early school
years, repeating verbatim whatever the teachers tell. Nursery rhymes
or other identification of various things are learnt with no effort.
These are nothing but ‘rote’ learning. This continues until the child
develops mental faculties to process abstract and conceptual inputs
that are not tangible; seeing a toy and identifying is different from
which of the Gandhi’s listed is alive now. Child’s immense speed and
mental capacity to absorb and store by ‘Rote’ route needs to be
taken advantage of; they will understand them sooner. The observation
that the 'deficiency' evened out in the eighth standard, proves this
point. The Vedas, Slokhas or for that matter arithmetic tables were
all learnt by ’rote’ route and later understood without ambiguity.
'Rote' learning practice at the lower classes is perhaps more
efficient when reasoning is still undeveloped.

from:  M.R.Sampath
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 11:47 IST

harsh reality.

from:  bilal.ahmad lone
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 10:49 IST

"...concedes that some negativity flows from the report, and agrees that students
should not be judged too harshly based on this study..." True... its the teachers and
parents who need to be judged harshly. Kids will only do and pick up what they see
at home and school. There are several families where kids are not encouraged to
ask,understand or explore. In fact some might even be discouraged from doing so. I
suspect people still believe that children must only be seen and not heard.

from:  Nikhil Nair
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 10:44 IST

Real and thought provoking; But it's teachers and civil society need to do the job well. Govt. are paying and giving the training etc. we can't blame govt. for this. People give importance on marks only than learning. result is only a minority or few educated products in the sense of prevalent terms

from:  Aicheng Mung Borgohain
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 10:34 IST

While this study certainly disproves the myth of private schooling as
a better and efficient provider of education for the country's hapless
kids, something so passionately espoused by votaries of privatizing
school education, it however stops short of probing into the factors
responsible for this sorry state. The main reason would be the absence
of committed school teachers who love their subjects, use appropriate
pedagogic methods, are sensitive to a child's socializing experience
and teach in a fashion that students can relate and understand. But
given that school teachers are so poorly trained and school teaching
itself so belittled and maligned a profession that possibilities of
learning with understanding and making learning reflective and
meaningful are so slim. Any meaningful learning to transpire rests not
so much on A/C rooms, swimming pools and multi-cuisine food that these
private schools proudly advertize but a band of committed teachers who
are cared for and valued.

from:  R S Krishna
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 09:00 IST

Excellent article! What was obvious is supported by the research. Especially in Tamilnadu, we have dispensed with competitive admission processes and so every school is focusing on just helping students score high marks even from lower classes. Understanding, application of knowledge and reading is absent with most students. But they still score high marks and ranks - all due to rote learning. I have seen in small centres students of class 8 or 9 knowing very little beyond their town, sometimes not even about their own town.
In my own way, I prepared a Power Point presentation on every State and about sixty cities in India, included pictures and maps and made a presentation to rural students of class 8 over about 15 classes telling them the historical significance of the places, their current social and economic status and their future potential. The children received it enthusiastically as seen from the Quiz competition I held for them.
A humble effort from an me to the students

from:  T N Neelakantan
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 06:54 IST

Wipro has demonstrated its civic responsibility by commissioning this study. We all should
thank them for this.

A person like me who has seen the world from both inside India and outside, there is not one
bit of surprise in this study though. PLEASE stop this dirty habit of testing based of memory
skills. It's useless the day you step outside the comforts of school and some colleges.

Please teach social responsibility, improve communication / interpersonal skills;
Conceptualization and innovation should be nurtured as skills. Ability to do mental arithmetic,
neat handwriting, memorizing tables including the periodic table, solving math problems
mechanically, too much dwelling on spelling skills are not worthy skills for humans in the era.
Anybody who has used a calculator, word processor, google should know this by now.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Dec 12, 2011 at 02:49 IST
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