OPINION

Leave them students alone

The Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) has gleefully foisted two more board examinations on unsuspecting students from next year. The council has always claimed to be “student-friendly”, so officials have hastened to point out that these examinations would be “application-based and would not require preparation”.

The question is this: wouldn’t children have to master the matter that is required to be applied? The inclusion of Sanskrit as an optional language from Standards V to VIII is nothing new — but it will certainly please “the powers that be”; as will the introduction of mandatory yoga from Standard I.

Schooling then and now

The USP of the CISCE was the freedom it afforded to every school to design its own curriculum till Standard VIII. Guidelines have been available in abundance and schools derived great pleasure in researching, comparing, collating and adopting best practices in India and abroad. Another instance of that freedom was in selecting textbooks. Only literature texts were prescribed for the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education and Indian School Certificate (ISC) examinations. The ISC examination was an adaptation of the Cambridge or General Certificate of Education ‘O’ level examination. So in the good old days, the philosophy of not ranking students, not mentioning the aggregate or precise marks was strictly followed; only subject-wise points were indicated. The vile element of senseless competition over a mark or two was deliberately avoided. But sadly, we as a people are obsessed with rank and status even in academics, and, sadly, the council gave in.

Ironically, the CISCE website announces as its ethos: “minimum monitoring; allowing schools to evolve own niche (sic); giving freedom to experiment with new ideas and practices”. It is disappointing to see that the CISCE is deviating sharply from its stated ethos of “minimum monitoring”. It is now attempting to take control of the entire school curriculum. We hope that it will not start prescribing textbooks next. This would result in promoting the racket of publishers vying for business and adding to the dubious tribe of textbook writers. We must wean our children away from textbook-oriented learning altogether. The bane of the Indian education system has always been this crippling dependence on the textbook. Children must be shown that the pages of a specific textbook do not contain all the answers and that learning happens everywhere.

Focus on the teacher

The council’s main objective in introducing these new tests, according to various dailies, is to assess the standard of teaching and thus keep schools on track. However, examination results can never indicate the quality of school teaching accurately; the focus should be on teacher training and teacher development. External assessment of schools for benchmarking and self-evaluation is required but certainly not in the form of periodic board exams. Some schools voluntarily offer external tests at the junior and middle school levels. These tests are optional, non-threatening and constructed by experts in the field. Important feedback (leading to effective “feedforward”) is received by these schools from the experts. The council, it has been said, will outsource the testing at these lower levels. In that case, why shouldn’t the schools be left to choose the tests they wish to administer, just as they should be left to prescribe their own textbooks? Incidentally, it is undesirable to measure aptitude at a young age.

Those in favour of these additional exams feel that such tests would enable children to take the board examinations in their stride in future. It is rather odd that some consider success in the board examinations to be the objective of school education. Putting it mildly, our current board examinations leave much to be desired. Examiners follow the marking scheme rigidly and many bright students have suffered because they have expressed themselves differently. Time and energy should be spent on improving the administration of these important exams instead of invading new areas which will only result in the dilution of existing services.

The Indian education system is constantly blamed for being too exam and textbook-oriented. The refrain is that our children should be questioning, imagining and creating instead of preparing set answers to set questions. Therefore, it is all the more puzzling why more and more public examinations are being piled on. Why have we suddenly forgotten the examination-related suicides that occur every year without fail? No board examination can be stress-free and we have no right to overburden our children and make anxious parents even more distressed. Guidelines from the council are most welcome — not constricting mandates.

Alas, we never learn from our own experiences or from those of others. Frequent testing does not improve learning. The 11-plus examination that is held in England annually is widely criticised. “The exam reduces everything to English, Maths and reasoning at an age where children’s minds ought to be opened to the wonders of the world and to the fascinating possibilities of science,” says an outspoken, but highly respected, headmaster. I do wish that we in India would concentrate on educating our young instead of preparing them for “competition”.

Indeed many are deeply disturbed about the pressures that are about to be put on our 10 year olds by the demand for ticking boxes.

Devi Kar is Director, Modern High School for Girls, Kolkata

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