By Manish Sisodia
(This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on 3rd August, 2017.)
In my experience as Delhi’s education minister, I have come to realise that despite many attempts by successive governments, they have not really been able to shape society. The Chief Minister’s Office or the Prime Minister’s Office does not determine the direction our society moves in, even if it wants to. What is really influencing our behaviour and attitudes is school education. The kind of education our children receive in the classroom goes a long way in what kind of human beings they become. It moulds their sensibilities and develops the extent of their ability to think for themselves.
The quality of school education exercises enormous control over society. So what determines what goes on in a classroom? The teaching processes in the classroom, whether we like it or not, are determined by the nature of exams and assessments.
I have come to realise that despite many attempts by successive governments, they have not really been able to shape society. The Chief Minister’s Office or the Prime Minister’s Office does not determine the direction our society moves in, even if it wants to.
An example of this is the chapter on the persecution of Dalits taught to Class VII children. An excerpt of Dalit literary great Om Prakash Valmiki’s iconic autobiography Joothan is a part of NCERT’s Class VII social science textbook. Introduced with the objective of educating children about the horrors of untouchability in India, the chapter can potentially play a role in sensitising children to caste-based discrimination in society. But it fails at doing so because of how examination questions are framed on the chapter. ‘Who is the author of the book Joothan?’ or ‘Which book did Om Prakash Valmiki author?’ are questions that do not serve the purpose of this chapter. However, since they are routinely asked in examinations, this chapter often becomes an exercise in rote memorisation of names and characters.
Classrooms, curricula, learning outcomes have all evolved over time. But the relative stagnation in examination patterns has induced inertia in the system. Teachers are not incentivised to adapt to the changing needs of society because that would not help children be successful in traditional examinations, and therefore reflect poorly on the teacher’s performance.
Merely pushing schools to focus on learning outcomes will not help. There is a need to align examination papers with learning outcomes. At the highest levels, we must begin to scrutinise every question of every examination from the prism of learning outcomes. If assessments do not test the learning levels of children, then they have no relevance. The continued stress on rote memorisation to perform well in examinations is creating memorisation machines, but not informed citizens. Despite examinations being important milestones in children’s lives, they are perceived as frightening events. If examinations had been about assessing learning levels instead of memory, much of this fear would not exist. Indian schools push children to study under pressure and fear of failure. This is what makes us a society that can only function when there is a fear of failure. An overhaul in our examinations will build a citizenry that is more confident and responsible.
Whatever we have achieved as a society is thanks to education. A few centuries ago, untouchability and slavery were defining characteristics of society. If we have come so far as to criminalise both these acts, it is the success of our classrooms. Each time we collectively condemn instances of restricting entry to temples for certain people, it is an advancement that is an achievement of our school education. At the same time, the fact that religious strife and caste-based violence continue to plague our society shows we clearly have a long way to go. Reforming education is the key to fixing many societal issues. And reforming examinations will help us provide a perfect path to achieve the goals of education reform.
If we begin to go beyond posing questions on the name of the author of Joothan, we will find that a lot of caste-related prejudices and misconceptions will be eliminated among children very early in their lives. Examinations will help bridge the divide between education and the requirements of society, and we must seize this opportunity. Classrooms hold the key to our society; and assessment patterns hold the key to our classrooms. Therefore, it is time to fundamentally rethink our assessment systems in schools.
Manish Sisodia is Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister, Delhi.