Sunday, April 11, 2021

No quality

With another final round of exams just around the corner with the end of academic year for our students, let us look at how our children are taught in their respective institutions. It has often been said that rote-learning is the problem for our students, but actually it is not. It is because the grading is designed in a way that cramming becomes necessary. The rush to finish the syllabus precedes all other concerns. And this is where independence of the teachers in higher education is necessary. Teachers must have absolute authority to design their course, teach it the way they want to, test students the way they want to and then grade it the way they want to. This is because the ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy is downright Kafkaesque. In our setting, the faculty has a departmental pressure to finish the syllabus; the department needs to report its completion rate to the administration and in case of an affiliated college, University sits on its head. The entire system is asking students to hurry up and check mark the chapters they have finished. Where is the room for creativity and curiosity for the faculty or the students? If faculty were to be trusted, s/he could redesign it if the need be, while observing where the class is going. Sure there might be bad examples in the beginning where some black sheep may take it as a license to teach nothing, but our educators at higher levels, by and large, are not so morally bankrupt. A beginning has to be made. The most brutal assault on the idea of education is when the students cram facts and figures. It doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t know facts but while one read and understand concepts, you’d come across figures and facts, much of which shall remain with you, as a corollary. However, when one mug up just to show to the examiner how much one knows, the whole idea is doomed. The best example is the civil services. One is bound to memorize the tributaries of Narmada River to prove you are good at administering the revenue department. You can see these kids, aspiring to be bureaucrats, memorizing such things. Tragic! Please understand 30 years down the line, Artificial Intelligence will take over most of the mechanical jobs and the only differentiating characteristic we humans will have to be good at, would be teamwork, creativity, ideas: anything which sets us apart from the machines, as Jack Ma opines. To incentivize rote learning is to be done away with. What we need to do instead, is to reward critical and original thinking, research, innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial ideas and problem-solving. This cannot be achieved, come what may, as long as the whole design of curriculum and exam pattern is not changed. You can’t just bracket it as an extracurricular activity to satisfy yourself while the students know that they won’t be tested on it. Yes, technology is to be incorporated into our curriculum in a massive way. If we do that, we can reach to those areas where the brick-and-concrete schools/colleges/universities will reach after 100 years; that too not so effectively. In today’s world, if education does not impart a skill-set, we do find ourselves alone in the job market. Our institutions should help students to identify their unique abilities and facilitate their academic journey accordingly. This is not just an adage that every individual is special; it’s the reality. This does not happen. Every year, thousands of science students, with no idea about their prospects in their own field, end up doing an MBA, where many of them do not actually fit in. This knowledge about self is critical and needs to be discovered early on. Besides, the industry-academia interface is a huge challenge. There are plethora of other ways to improve. The point is we need to realize that comparing our current education system with that of our past is not the right way to assess improvement. Although the number of institutes, students, teachers, computers, soft wares may have increased, the rate of improvement remains the same. If the country’s education was ranked in 140s in the past, it’s still there. So, what some may perceive as an improvement is not an improvement. It shows that efforts to make it better have not been made or made in a wrong direction. Indeed while the efforts to increase the number of students continues, the quality should not take a hit.