Round table discussions suggest alternatives to present education system

A recap of deliberations at recent round table discussions in Karnataka that sought to develop a strategy for transforming our schools and higher education institutions, replacing the rote learning-driven system that they have traditionally followed.

What you see in the picture above is not just a classroom. This houses an entire school from first grade to seventh grade with 27 students right in the heart of Mysuru city. A few years back this government school had over 300 students.

Since 2005 Pratham’s Annual Survey of Education reports (ASER) have been showing dreadful learning performance of our future generation every year. Every one knows that the emperor has no clothes, but we are not ready to implement the needed reforms.

India’s education sector, for all practical purposes, has collapsed. Ironically, at a time when we want to become a knowledge economy. The question now is how to transform India’s rote learning system, imposed by our colonial rulers to produce clerks, to produce world class thinkers, scientists, philosophers, administrators and managers.

Recent round table discussions at Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatheswara College, Ujre (SDM) on Primary and Secondary School education and on Higher Education at Justice K S Hegde Institute of Management (JKSHIM) in Nitte came up with five suggestions to tackle the different problems afflicting primary and secondary education and how these could be tackled.

Suggestion to get rid of SSLC, PUC and the like

The most radical of these was getting rid of public examinations like SSLC and PUC and replacing them with an objective type exam system to test analytical abilities rather than rote learning. There was total agreement among participants that these exams do not promote creative thinking.

The main problem, however, was how to convince political and other policy makers of this and replace the current exam system with an alternative viable system for testing and selecting students for higher studies.

The other four suggestions were:

  • Total decentralisation, with each city/taluk having independent school boards rather than one board for the entire state.
  • No transfer of government school teachers.
  • Developing a system that will hold schoolteachers and administrators responsible, based on all round student performance based on the SDM school system.
  • Close down small schools to integrate them into larger schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas which have better library, laboratory and other facilities.

At the round table, teachers and administrators agreed to implement two key strategies without waiting for major policy changes. One was to offer help to government schools and work with the existing number of teachers to give remedial teaching to their students.

Second, SDM schools will implement a “True Education” programme to ignite creative thinking, motivate students and to impart proper value system that would enable students to be socially responsible. Speakers pointed out that SDM College has been trying out this “True Education” project for a few years now and it was felt that high schools can learn from their experience.

It was inspiring to see the whole hearted enthusiasm among teachers present to learn about new ways of promoting creative thinking among their students and their willingness to get involved in rural development.

The problem of lack of choice

On higher education, participants agreed on one basic problem: lack of choice for students.

For example, for an engineering student wanting to study music or anthropology or comparative religion, the present system makes it impossible. Even at the PUC level, students are forced to decide on specialisations like science, commerce and humanities. Often students are forced to take science by their parents, most of whom want their children to become engineers or doctors. The round table could not offer any strategy on this issue.

Self-regulation and autonomy for colleges and universities, was another issue highlighted. Policy makers agree on this, but political compulsions have stalled any meaningful reform in the functioning of regulatory bodies governing higher education.

Any number of commissions (Kothari Commission in 1966, Knowledge Commission in 2007-2009, Yashpal Committee in 2009, Subramanian Committee in 2016 etc) have suggested ways and means to reform the education sector. But all these recommendations have remained mostly on paper.

Of particular concern is the functioning of National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), whose vision statement is “to make quality the defining element of higher education in India.” One of NAAC’s missions is to encourage self-evaluation, accountability, autonomy and innovations in higher education. However, all these have remained distant dreams for all but a handful of institutions like IITs and IIMs. Unless the teacher is given full autonomy to assess students, today’s examination driven education system will not result in quality education.

It is now time for civil society to play a role in bringing about a million mutinies in education. And to somehow get around a system driven by final examination with undue importance on getting high marks and rank rather than a desire to learn. As a result, most private colleges and universities have their own test and selection process. Since this is the reality, why continue with the present elaborate system where more energy, time and resources are spent in conducting examinations than in teaching.

The use of information technology in improving the quality of education is not questioned. But caution is needed in deciding the way it is adapted here. True, thousands of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on every conceivable topic, prepared by professors from premier universities, are available. UGC has come up with guidelines to offer degree courses by top Indian Universities online. While all these are welcome, one needs to be careful to ensure that these efforts do not end with the same focus on passing examinations and getting high marks rather than learning.

Can social entrepreneurship in education be one solution for the future? The success of institutions like the Manipal institutes would suggest so. There are world class private high schools in India. But higher education excellence has eluded private efforts, though it needs to be admitted that there is a need to create a better ecosystem for private investment, where emphasis will combine profit and continuous improvement of educational standards to rival international institutions.

There was one other welcome suggestion at the end of the two-day panel discussion: to form a cyber-based think tank to conduct research on transforming the education sector, beginning in Dakshin Kannada and Udupi districts and later taking these to the national level to advocate policy changes.

[Note: The author was moderator in the roundtables referred above. ]

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