Making education meaningful

Last Updated 26 September 2012, 19:32 IST

If the CBSE’s plan of holding open book exams works out, it has the scope to bring about far reaching, and much needed, reforms in high school education, says Vatsala Vedantam.

The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) plans to introduce ‘open book’ examinations for Class X and XII from next year. The HRD ministry has initiated the process to make high school education more student-friendly.

So far, so good. If this plan works out, and teachers across the country accept it too, it will be a far reaching reform. I have mentioned teachers in particular, because this new system will impose greater responsibility on them to make the classroom environment also more student-friendly. 

No more “finishing the portions” in time for the exams. No more lecturing down to students from a platform. In fact, no more lecturing at all. They have to make sure that their wards have grasped the essentials of the subject, because there is no question of learning something by heart, and regurgitating the same in the exam hall. An open book exam expects something more tangible from students and teachers.

The name conjures visions of examinations being a cake walk hereafter! The prospect of taking a text into the exam hall, and looking up all the answers with no invigilator peeping over your shoulder is too good to be true. Yes. Provided you know what to look for, where to find it and what to make out of it.

If this is mere “copying” with official sanction, what does one copy? It is not like that story we all know about the friendly teacher who wrote all the answers on the blackboard for the students’ benefit so that the school will get better results. The teacher did not anticipate that his students would copy every word including “Go to the next blackboard.” Unless a student is familiar with the subject, and has understood all the finer aspects of the same, having a text open before her does not help. In this new system, it is assumed that the student has read and understood the prescribed texts in the first place. There are no quick or easy answers just because she has the textbook open before her in the exam hall.  Unless she knows where to find the correct answer  –  which means being very familiar with the text  –  the open book in front of her will have no significance.

An open book exam also means more commitment from teachers, examiners and students. Firstly, the question paper format itself will have to change. It must no longer test the memorising powers, but challenge the student to think, analyse and come to logical conclusions. For example, if the examiner merely asks a student to quote the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Hamlet,  the open book comes in handy. But, if asked to analyse and explain the conflict in Hamlet’s mind, not even the complete works of Shakespeare will help! The same will be true for any other subject.

An open book does not mean transferring the information from the book to the answer sheet. It means filtering the information in the book by reading, examining, questioning and finally arriving at a conclusive answer. Each student’s conclusion may differ, depending on how she saw the picture. This makes the examiner’s task much more difficult, as there are no “right” answers or “wrong” answers. The open book exam not only tests a student’s ability to analyse, rationalise and come up with a creative answer. It also tests the examiner’s capability to recognise his ward’s mental and creative faculties — which means that the examiner must also have the ability to judge the merit of a student in this type of examination.

Expect major changes

So, if implemented properly, the open book type of exam will change the very face of teaching and examining in schools. The classroom will have to undergo major changes too. No more dictating some obsolete notes or writing information on the blackboard for students to copy and memorise. No more marking it right only when the student has repeated all this faultlessly in the class tests and exams.

No more striking out passages which the teacher did not dictate in the classroom, or marking it all wrong when the student has come up with an original answer.  The open book formula is to encourage original thinking in young minds. The teacher must encourage high school students, who are on the threshold of higher learning, to think, question, analyse and then come to a conclusion. In this system, there will be greater scope for library study, independent project work and innovative teaching and learning methods. A child’s schooling need not be a drab or fearful experience. There is so much joy in exploring and learning that, at the end of it all, the exam should become a means of testing whether the TEACHER has succeeded in making it so.

This is the reason I mention the teachers’ role in making this proposal come true. The open book examination will become relevant only when our teaching methods undergo a sea change. It will succeed when teachers recognise that education is a process of learning how to think for oneself. That ancient story from the Upanishad where the teacher utters one syllable to the pupil and asks him to return after thinking about for a whole year, describes education in a nutshell. It is a simple process of teaching a student to contemplate rather than learn quickly.

It is also a process where the teacher encourages the desire to learn so that a student asks for more. The present day system of  “coaching” students inside and outside the classroom to ensure a first class in the final examination is not education at all. It is drudgery that kills rather than kindle a love for learning. The school must become a place where minds are shaped, personalities are developed and thoughts are stimulated. This truth must be recognised by all educators if the CBSE proposal has to succeed.

(Published 26 September 2012, 14:28 IST)

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