Learning crisis

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It is clear that year after year we add to the existing huge army of unskilled personal, inappropriate for the knowledge society of the 21st century. The disquiet has engulfed our environs and the blame for this is typically heaped upon bad infrastructure, poor student attendance, inputs-based monitoring, and inadequate teacher preparation programmes. While these issues are valid, but all of them taken together do not fully explain the learning crisis apparent in our classrooms, and don’t look so major an obstacle to student growth. Observations reveal that teachers do attend, and students turn up, and classrooms and textbooks are available; so what is preventing then lakhs of children from acquiring the knowledge the world is looking for. The time demands to reflect how well are we doing in producing the human resource which proves an asset not a liability. Current policy discourse suggests that one of the predominant issues is a lack of desired student assessment. The standardized assessments emerged in the post-industrial era when factories and large business units required many labourers but few thinkers. As a result, a test that told you a little about everyone was preferred to an alternative that told you a lot about one person. In other words, standardized assessments were designed to suit a system instead of an individual. What was taught, and what examinations rewarded, was conformity and mastery of prescribed, narrowly defined content usually learnt from a single text. A questioning attitude was dangerous, and the teaching of skills other than those needed by the establishment superfluous. Hence, the primary goal of education remained that of disseminating it through prescribed textbooks and the prime purpose of examinations was to test the success of such transmission. The simultaneous processes of nation building and the creation of an industrial working class required homogenizing, and hence did not put a premium on differentiation or flexibility. As such the welfare of the individual learner was subordinate to this political and economic enterprise. The cherished aim of marking off test papers to use the outcome for improving teaching remains far away from its destiny and everybody associated hurriedly fishes-out the figures for festivity. Conversation ironically is always around aggregate data that hides more than it shows. If standardization is the key to success in manufacturing, differentiation is the key to success in the service sector. If consistency is a key quality of an industrial worker, problem solving and lateral thinking are key qualities in a service provider (even at the humble level of a table-server). In the latter, one size manifestly does not fit all, as such calls for a very different philosophy of education. Our decision to remain stuck to old world assessment approaches – one test to rule them all, one test to find them, can’t be the counterpart of the anticipated demands. Today, adaptive tests allow students to solve problems at their own pace, and item-wise analysis provides data on gaps in understanding, which in turn enables teachers to provide remediation real-time. Instead of getting all schools to administer paper pencil tests, pushing digital infrastructure at the school level for better testing is a more worthwhile pursuit. This is an immense challenge that our education system faces, and we need to tackle it with fresh thinking. We must discard the mandarin mentality – one that masquerades as progressive but is actually colonial in its quest. A system of education and examination that teaches members of disadvantaged groups the requisite problem-solving and analytical skills needed by the job market are vital. Memorizing and regurgitating textbooks is not a skill needed by the markets today. An examination system that encourages this type of ‘learning’ snuffs out creativity. Today, the economy is markedly shifting in favour of the individual. The gig and contract economy in the West has grown tremendously in the past decade and jobs are shrinking. In this part of world too, as automation increases, individual adaptability will become the most salient skill day by day. Therefore, policy measures today must not cuddle old world assessment approaches. We need measures that target the individual student and the classroom. If classrooms change, schools will change. If schools change, the system will.