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THIS MARCH MADNESS MUST END

[Alice] said to herself; “the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad — at least not so mad as it was in March.”

There is a distinct strain of madness in the air, in the month of March each year. For many, it is the financial year-end that gets them into a tizzy. For some it is the riotous vasant festival of Holi when it is all right to indulge in a bit of bhang and a little madness. But for us it is the annual epidemic called exams which is maddening. Most of you are likely to say that examinations are extremely important and preparing students for these papers are far more urgent than getting financial papers ready by the end of March. Nevertheless, I have decided to tell you about the massive preparations that are necessary for this annual ritual and the staggering number of man-hours (mostly woman-hours actually) that are devoted to it at the cost of precious teaching and learning time. I will not take into account the time and energy spent by the boards for which it is a year-round occupation. After all, these boards came into existence and continue to exist for the sole purpose of administering examinations. It is the affiliated schools that I am concerned about. From mid-February till mid-April, they are at the disposal of their respective boards — as centres of examinations and as centres of marking. Schools have to suspend their classes as teachers have to go out on various examination duties as supervisors, invigilators or examiners. School activities are kept on hold as halls are used for the examinations and other rooms are designated for ‘centralized marking’ of answer scripts.

Many welcome reforms have been introduced by the different boards in terms of continuous, comprehensive assessment, project-based assessment, oral-aural assessment and ‘open book’ tests. In view of this, some of us had expected that the practice of holding mega-scale examinations for thousands of candidates at the same time would be discarded by now. But the practice continues with even greater vigour and it is difficult to fathom how the boards cope with the staggering number of candidates to be assessed .Today, when tests and interviews are widely conducted online, it is a shame that perfectly competent students have to lose a whole year if they happen to fall ill during the period that is ear-marked for examinations. And no matter what we do to reduce examination-related stress, the anxiety that students and their parents go through is plain for everyone to see. Normal life comes to a standstill in every household that harbours an examination candidate. It is true that we joke about parents milling round their offspring offering them cool coconut water, last minute advice and their guru’s blessings, and we shake our heads on hearing about tutors working out the paper after every examination to predict exactly how much their wards would score. But while we see the humour we also agree that the tension in the air is palpable.

It is generally accepted that the only purpose that these examinations serve is that of initial screening for institutions of higher studies or of providing the licence necessary for apprenticeship at a vocational training centre. The irony is that both academicians and employers complain that the grades or marks obtained by a student have little correlation with his or her readiness for either university or work. The reasons given for this are manifold of which the most obvious one is the mode of assessment. The marking is done by an army of teachers with varying degrees of competence while rigid adherence to a uniform marking scheme usually spells disaster for students who do not tread the conventional path.

By the time a student reaches Class XII her single-minded focus is on the attainment of the ‘cut-off percentage’ that will make her eligible to apply to the college of her choice. And there is a whole industry out there to help her and others like her, to attain this magic number. Young boys and girls are coached in many ingenious ways so that even without engaging with their studies independently they manage to succeed in these examinations. The outcome is that even successful IIT entrants are found sadly wanting by their professors. ‘These hopefuls have merely mastered the art of cracking the exam,’ they lament. This phenomenon reminds me of piano students who have fared extremely well in their grade examinations but cannot play anything other than the three prescribed pieces in their syllabus. Something is surely amiss.

The system of setting lengthy papers following a given pattern at a given time has outgrown its usefulness in assessing a student’s calibre — her creativity, her thinking skills, her intellectual curiosity and her ability to apply the knowledge that she has garnered. Experts believe that in the years to come, along with the individualization of the teaching-learning process, assessment too will be customized to indicate a student’s unique profile. It is imperative that we learn to anticipate the future and prepare our young to engage with a rapidly changing world. The problem is that even the immediate future is becoming increasingly difficult to predict.

Preparing for the future — no matter how uncertain — involves identifying trends. Admittedly, any attempt at trendspotting can be quite far out. We all know about the famously wrong predictions of yesteryears. In 1943, the chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson, said, “I think there is a world market for may be five computers.” Then there was Decca Recording Company which rejected the Beatles in 1962. “We don’t like their sound,” they exclaimed, “and guitar music is on the way out”, they added with an air of finality. So you have to be very careful about what you predict — “it may come back to haunt you... or laugh at you.” As I write this, psephologists are feeding us with all kinds of forecasts with regard to the way our nation will vote this month and in the next. Yes, everyone is aware that nothing can be safely or accurately predicted with regard to the economy, technological advances, the natural environment and certainly politics but everyone also recognizes that the exercise of reflecting on possible futures is necessary.

The height of speculation about the future was reached at the opening of this millennium. What exactly would the 21st century bring in its wake? We know that change happens all the time but it is a landmark year or a stirring event that reminds us to reflect on the phenomenon of change and how to respond to it. We are already in the 14th year of the current century and people are still talking in terms of ‘a 21st century education’ among other things. Can we really envision the world, society or the nature of education for a period of a 100 years? Take the dramatic changes that have taken place since 2000 — they have already changed the way we are looking at education at present. There were no iPods, iPads or iTunes in 2000. Now iPods are used as study tools with pre-recorded lectures and course materials. I have seen tablets being used at the primary level in Mumbai while in some schools, interactive, customized programmes are used effectively to teach or enhance mathematics lessons. This is a scenario we did not envisage in 2000; so perhaps we would be better off preparing for likely changes in the next five to ten years instead of a whole century. But we must definitely ask ourselves from time to time whether we should continue to teach and learn and test in the way we are doing.

Some of the practices that are being questioned already are our preoccupation with handwriting (teach them to use a keyboard or touchscreen), the niceties of grammar and punctuation (the comma, I am told is on its way to extinction), spelling (as long as you recognize the word, how does it matter? Besides, you don’t get penalized for wrong spelling in the board examinations), multiplication tables (why do we have calculators?), letter writing (who writes letters these days?) and so on. The old fable of the sabre-tooth curriculum comes back to haunt us. These issues, we know, will be resolved with the passage of time and others will take their place. But it is crucial to try and identify the imminent shifts and changes. Here are a few that I have chosen on the basis of certain pundits’ predictions coupled with my own reflections. A necessary rider is, that no matter how radical the changes are or how many changes come our way — basics in education will always be important. You must know Biology before Micro-biology and Economics before Economic Applications.

The first important shift of focus will be from problem-solving skills to creativity and innovativeness. Next, the importance of interdisciplinarity will increase. Individualized or customized teaching and learning will be in great demand while group-learning and peer-teaching will be favoured for their long term benefits. Differentiated and blended learning are already in vogue. Differentiated learning is the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.” Blended learning on the other hand, provides a mix of learning environments. The emphasis will shift from short-term goals such as examination success, to lifelong learning and continuing education involving mixed age groups. Learning will take place everywhere and all the time and from varied experiences. The urban-rural divide will be reduced but notwithstanding Sugata Mitra’s School in a Cloud, children will still need flesh and blood teachers — albeit with different roles — at least for a while yet. Brick and mortar schools too are here to stay — also playing different roles.

Amidst all these likely changes, dare we hope to see the end of examination madness in March or any other time of the year?