Prepare the ecosystem

Open book examination

Students studying for exam.

The Karnataka government was in the news recently for its announcement that it is thinking of introducing ‘open book’ examination system from class 1-5. This proposal gained a mixed response from educationists and teachers.

Let’s examine the role and purposes of assessment with an illustrative example. If a child has to learn addition, she needs to know place value and face value of a number. Unless the teacher is certain that the child is able to recognise face value and place value, she will not be able to move further to teach addition. During this process of teaching itself, the teacher has to assure herself that the child is progressing step by step.

This is where the need for assessment fits naturally into the pedagogy. Learning and assessment goes hand in hand. Without assessment, teaching cannot proceed further. The purpose of assessment is to aid learning, that is, to enrich teachers’ understanding of what the child has learnt, what the child knows and how she could facilitate new learning.

The directive of the Right to Education Act-2009 is to implement continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) in schools. This has huge implications on how and what we assess and how we approach teaching. In concrete terms, it means de-emphasising rote learning, providing children an opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can perform, allowing flexible teaching plans based on the information that the assessment reveals. It calls for individualised assessment methods and teaching and multi-modal assessment to enrich our understanding of the child’s learning.

But those who are acquainted with the public education system know our limited success with CCE implementation in our schools. Our mindset hasn’t changed on assessment. We still perceive it to be a one-time activity, mostly at the end of a term. It is used to induce fear of failure or anxiety for success among the children and to punish/reward teachers/schools/functionaries.

Parents seem to be anxious about the marks the children get and end up making comparisons with other children. Thus interpreting educational success narrowly based on marks scored in a question paper which predominantly assesses rote memory is a misinterpretation of the purpose of assessment. Nothing seems to be changing on this count despite the introduction of several reforms.

The option of ‘open book’ examination has to be seen in this context. Open book examination encourages children to choose references, read, comprehend the information given in them, develop their own understanding and apply it to solve the problem and create their own ideas based on the text.

This will require sifting and analysis of information, search for evidence, and evaluating arguments and so on. Students will be able to respond only if they comprehend the text in the book.

To make open book examination a success, the focus of the teacher needs to be on how well children use the information in the books to relate to their life experiences, solve problems using the information and sharpen their thinking ability. If the open book method of assessment has to serve the purpose, then the kinds of questions asked in the test become critical.

An open book examination cannot ask a question for which an answer has to be searched in the book and written as it is. That will not encourage higher-level learning skills beyond the ability to search for a ready, printed answer. At the same time, the teacher cannot have the same answer key for every question, as is the case in our conventional examination system, for awarding grades. She will need to analyse each response to understand each child’s critical thinking skills and appreciate that she could receive a variety of responses from the children for the same question. The idea of ‘open book’ is not unrealistic, but how we use it for understanding children’s learning and plan our instruction is very important.

Pedagogical reforms

As hinted earlier, assessment reforms call for pedagogical reforms. One important shift that is required is to view learning as an active process of engaging with the given information to construct meaning for oneself. It also establishes the primacy of learners in the learning process.

It emphasises the role of a teacher as a facilitator who creates opportunities for critical engagement, respecting the individual experiences of the learners and giving them ‘voice’. The classrooms need to have a lot of discussions and debates on what the given ‘text’ presents, how it relates to one’s personal experience, move towards multiple sources of information, and arrive at conclusions. This will hone children’s creative and critical mental capabilities.

Hence, it is critical that we empower teachers and functionaries in the system so that they internalise the perspectives on assessment, devise pedagogies that promote thinking in children and design assessment tools that prompt children to critically think and respond. Only through such preparedness can the issues of implementation be addressed. Unless the government ensures this preparedness in the system, it will end up creating a buzz for some time on the ‘open book’ examination idea but will contribute little towards the educational goals.

Thus, the issue seems to be at multiple levels: how do we conceptualise any new reform? Do the implementing arms own these reforms? Are parents made aware about these ideas? The system needs to own these reforms, uphold the vision and evolve processes aligned to the vision. This cannot happen overnight or by just a policy change; this can happen if those who are part of the ecosystem breathe the vision every day. Unless the education system addresses the above effectively, these kinds of reforms will come and go, leaving children, teachers and parents in the vicious circle of failed reforms and dwindling hopes.

(Arun Naik is Associate Professor, Azim Premji University; Nisha Butoliya is Assistant Professor, Visiting Faculty, APU)

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