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.”
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