Killing them softly: Our kids and the education system

Mon, Jun 17, 2019

Our education system ends up creating a good number of nerds, a huge number of geeks and scarcely any well-rounded person. That’s the way it is

Amidst the furore against seeming imposition of a particular language in the Draft New Education Policy 2019 (NEP 2019), the more substantial issue appears to have been crowded out of the public debate space. Perhaps, the self-anointed opinion makers have not actually gone through the 480 odd pages document of the draft. In any case, the issue still remains safely untouched. This eerie silence around the larger issue that needs to be debated should be of concern to all right-thinking citizens of this country. After all, a country is shaped by its citizenry moulded within the overall framework of its education policy. What is more, an opportunity to rethink national education policy does not come very often, the most recent one was in 1968. 1986 and 1992 were, in all fairness, a peripheral tinkering of a sort. We, therefore, are ill-advised to miss the Halley’s Comet of our education Cosmo.
It is no secret; our education system is notorious for taking a heavy toll on our kids. The most salient indicator of its toxicity is the student suicide statistics of the country. According to government statistics, a student somewhere in this country commits suicide every hour. That is a very ghastly number, by any civilized standard. Without a doubt, suicide cases make headlines and seem to gnaw at the collective conscience of the society, if only for a split moment. However, it hides more than what it reveals. Underneath these suicide incidences lie a whole spectrum of equally debilitating afflictions. Some studies suggest that one in every five students are showing some signs of mental health issues.
Who is responsible for such a toxic predicament? Whatever vantage point one takes, all roads end up at the door of education policy. Moreover, education being a concurrent subject makes the issue all the more confounded. Although different people will have a different take on the essential nature of the issue; at its very core, it is an economic problem of demand and supply gone haywire. This is not surprising given the niggardly amount of expenditure India allocates for education. Since independence, we have never spent more than 5% of our GDP in a year on it, let alone the 6% minimum that its own expert committee suggested in 1986 which in itself was an austere estimate of the actual requirements. It, then, is no wonder that the number of seats is inversely proportional to the number of students. What is more, this disequilibrium is made worse by added psycho-social and political dimensions. A little bit of thinking through would make obvious what is seemingly so obtuse.
Unable to muster the political will to augment the constricted supply side, the state engaged the examination system to control the number of entrants into various stages of education level. This unleashed a perverse worldview wherein education is demanded not so much for its intrinsic value than for its instrumental value. In fact, it has been this way since the latter half of the nineteenth century. After independence, all that the National Policy on Education 1968 (NPE 1968) did was to legitimise this worldview by formalizing it within an overall policy edifice. Even with such an instrumentalistic paradigm, things could have been very different had there been a sincere implementation of some of the critical prescriptions of NPE 1968. That it is not the case is succinctly reflected by the prevailing situation where the supply of education severely lags behind its demand. The result is a world of education steeped in toxic cut-throat competition, let alone being student friendly.
Ironically, teachers, parents and well-wishers make the matter no less bad. This is, perhaps, so because many of them are complacently oblivious to the constraint of the system. Even those who appreciate the inadequacies in the system are compelled to act in no better ways. Collectively, they end up magnifying the tyranny of the system on our kids. We need to accept the reality that topper slots are, by its very nature, few and that we can either compete in a healthy way and thereby end up winners all of us, or we can indulge in indiscriminate below the belt tactics and thereby end up losers all of us. Even those who emerge de jure winners in these brutal bouts are de facto losers and scarred for life in some way.
Frankly speaking, politics will care about remedying the system to the extent that doing so brings a critical minimum sum of votes. This explains why student suicide is almost never an item on the political agenda whereas farmer suicide is a familiar item on the same agenda list. Lest it is misconstrued, farmer suicide is also a grave concern and more than deserves to deliberated upon. A society that lets its farmers die avoidable deaths will eventually be haunted by austerity on the food table. The parallel is drawn only to highlight the contrast in political treatment to these two equally important issues of the country.
It is astonishing to see how steep a price we are individually paying so the larger society can have these few toppers. In a sense, this is akin to the butter making process. We put all the milk together and begin the process of churning. This churn is symbolic of the tyranny of the system; milk stands for our kids. The larger society may look at the butter that comes out on the other side of the process, but the real tragedy is how a huge amount of valuable milk is getting converted into buttermilk in the process. This, in a nutshell, is the wasted and twisted childhood which we as teachers, parents and well-wishers have a huge part in bringing about, in our full senses. Our education system ends up creating a good number of nerds, a huge number of geeks and scarcely any well-rounded person. That’s the way it is. But going by the NEP 2019, it may not remain so for long. Or am I allowing my cart to run ahead of the horses?
NEP 2019 proposes many changes with a view to lessen the burden of study load on students. Two of them, if implemented in its true spirit, can go a long way in making our education system student friendly. One of them is the proposal to change the structure of the pedagogy from 10+2 system to a new and scientifically proven 5+3+3+4 (Foundational+Preparatory+Middle+Secondary) system. The Foundational Stage would comprise of 3 years of pre-school and first two grades (class) of school. This stage would be driven by play and activity based learning processes. The Preparatory Stage would comprise of Class 3, 4 & 5. Here formal classroom learning would be introduced along with building on the play and activity based learnings of the earlier stage. The Middle Stage would comprise of Class 6, 7 & 8 and it would initiate the students into abstract learnings along with specialized subjects supported by specialized teachers within an experiential and explorative format. And the Secondary Stage would comprise of Class 9, 10, 11 & 12 wherein focus would be on a multi-disciplinary study consisting of semester system.
The other is the proposal of formative tests rather than the present system of summative tests. Formative tests, unlike summative ones, allow for fine tuning the learning processes midway and leads to effective learning. It helps in deciding a more effective way of pedagogy delivery as it essentially allows a lot of room for customization of the processes based on the student’s level. At a philosophical level, it bespeaks the conviction that how much one knows is not as important as how much one does not know when it comes to true learning. So, the instruments of the tests would be utilised to find out how much students do not know as opposed to the current practice of finding out how much they know. A little reflection would make it clear that such an approach towards tests is an antithesis to the current system of rote learning. Only within a system of education where learning is aimed at comprehending core concepts and higher level learning skills like critical thinking and synthesis is such an approach to test feasible as well as fruitful.  
Children are the future of any society. So, it is but logical that the quality of childhood we afford them will determine what kind of society we would have in future. If it sounds too simple, you are not to be blamed. The theory is almost always simple and straightforward; the devil is the dynamics of the real world. Fortunately, the NEP 2019 appears to be a potent tool to rectify the bedevilled dynamics. It is about time that we as a society rally behind policy discourses which genuinely appear to have the best interests of our children on their minds. Failure to do so would inevitably confer us with a deep sense of enduring regret for messing up their childhood, not to mention of an army of reluctant doctors, rebellious engineers, renegade teachers, reviled bureaucrats and even accidental Prime Ministers.

Area: 7096 Sq Km
Altitude: 5,840 ft
Population: 6.10 Lakhs
Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 ft. to over 28,509 ft above sea level
Summer: Max- 21°C ; Min – 13°C
Winter: Max -13°C ; Min – 0.48°C
Rainfall: 325 cm per annum
Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi