Unlearning old habits at school

TESTING TIMES

Unlearning old habits at school

Kamala Balachandran explains why schools and students must not get caught up in the fervour of marks and mugging up

Recently, I found out that finalising a suitable date for a wedding ceremony is no less difficult than finding the bride/groom. A friend was in a fix because the date given by the family astrologer for her grandson’s wedding was rejected by her  daughter on the grounds that it was a week before her six-year-old son’s exams. Apparently, the daughter had indicated a couple of ‘windows’, but the astrologer could not find an auspicious date within those. What amused and amazed me was that the son mentioned was in Class 2  and the exam, was the end of term one!

Exams and tests have always been an integral part of all education systems in India. They continue to be so because written tests are the most transparent way by which all individuals can be evaluated simultaneously. They are reasonably fair to all as subjectivity plays the least role in evaluation. But what is disturbing now is that in our system, written examinations have become an end in themselves. They have come to define education and this mindset has coloured even the lowest classes in school.

Most private schools today are commercial ventures, and their goal is to establish themselves as a coveted choice to parents. Since Board exam results are an accepted barometer for measuring a school’s worth, it is in the interest of the school to inflate the importance of exams and marks and get the children into the ‘exams-answering- mode’, right from the start.

Also, given the unhealthy teacher-pupil ratio in classrooms, teachers have no time to revise the lessons or check if all students have grasped the concepts. Frequent tests serve the purpose of making the parents responsible for the education of their wards. Schools also use the marks card very effectively to terrorise the parents and making them feel accountable for a child’s non-performance.

One might say that the fault lies with the parents too, as they actively cooperate with the schools in this. Mothers of young children (who are the self-appointed educational agents of their wards) often go overboard, attaching disproportionate value to every written test and marks obtained in them. However, since parents are as much a victim in this as the child, there has to be a good reason why the majority of mothers embrace the role of the task master and put the child and the family through the torture of studying for an exams.

“I sit with my son for hours before a test and make sure he has learnt the answers,” confesses a busy professional. “I know it is ridiculous that I should be so actively involved in what is essentially his test, but since most kids in his class are getting coached by an adult at home, I don’t want my son to be left behind,” she adds.

Parents are plagued by other valid fears too. “As a teacher, I know these marks don’t mean anything. And I am tempted to allow my daughter to get whatever marks she manages by studying on her own. But the other kids who have been helped at home will score high and that could make my child conclude that she isn’t as smart. Teachers and other classmates too might rank her lower and label her as an average student and that could have a lasting effect on her self-esteem. I don’t want that to happen,”

“If I don’t keep up the pressure, my son might get a zero in these tests and not be bothered about it. Progressively, he could get thick-skinned and end up setting a low bar and soft career options for himself.”

The argument that tests are necessary for the children to get used to, to effectively face examinations in the future, is not valid. The format of all future, high stakes examinations is entirely different from what children are put through during the early years. In fact, even high school students need to unlearn the old habit of limiting themselves to mastering all the information that’s held within the covers of the prescribed textbooks and instead, be able to develop a wider knowledge base. Competitive examinations call for an ability to apply knowledge and this once again, is a skill that does not get honed by the old type ‘question-answer’ tests.

Hence, it is in the interest of all that schools change the test format and device tools that test the child’s comprehension. The best way to check if young children have understood an idea is by getting them to provide the answers through illustrations. Written answers can be learnt by-heart without understanding but it is not possible to do so with a picture. Answering a test largely as drawings will be fun and not stressful to the child.
Contrary to what many believe, drawing skills can be learnt by all children in just the
same way as they pick up writing skills. It is just that in our system, the focus has been entirely on the letters and basic drawing, totally neglected.

There is no denying that young children gain enormously if school work were to get reinforced at home. Since most young children are new to English, parents can help by explaining the lesson and the questions in the language which is spoken at home. This, surely, is an aspect that a school cannot cover.

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