Significant attention is now being given to improving many skills and competencies in our graduates that were earlier not focused on. Communication skills, problem solving and creative thinking are some examples of these skills and competencies. The reason for this new focus seems to be that a significant majority of our young graduates either lack these basic skills or are unable to use them in their life. There is a growing awareness across the board that our education system is not very good at facilitating learning of these skills and competencies in the students. Let me just call these skills and competencies “life skills”.
We now see a deluge of courses to help one deal with these life skills. Engineering and graduation curricula are being revisited and being strengthened with additional subjects like communication and presentation skills, which are deemed essential to get a good job. But this deals with the specific manifestation of a deeper issue.
Is it only the ability to communicate and do a job that is lacking? Or is this something more fundamental? While we need to make attempts to rectify immediate issues, it is important for us to see beyond this. What is the root of the issue? Our education system currently does not actively encourage the development of life skills. What is learnt in school is considered academic and largely serves the purpose of clearing examinations. Our curriculum consists of discrete items or subjects that a student can pick and choose to increase his or her efficiency and performance in examinations.
This systematic attitude is obvious in the way our curriculum and its assessment are approached. The results of this perspective are so serious that even language and communication are seen as separate topics that need to be dealt with in an examination. The marks we get in these subjects are seen as separate and not necessarily influencing the ability to perform in the other subject areas. The lack of life skills is a manifestation of this view of our curriculum. We are implicitly discouraging the student from connecting ideas, from applying thoughts to different contexts, from questioning and from learning. This problem commences at the level of primary education itself.
We need to see the curriculum as a network of knowledge and not discrete compartments. Children should be encouraged to view the curriculum as a composite. We need to employ more flexibility and free ourselves from this need to have specific periods devoted to specific subjects with little or no overlap. We constantly need to be creative in helping the child develop linkages among various topics she learns and then with the real world. Clarifying thoughts, enquiring and communicating need to be inherent in the learning process. We need to provide opportunities for the child to employ the concepts she has learnt. This approach will provide the foundations for a child to learn the process of learning. The way we view curriculum influences the assessment process we adopt. Our current assessment system is focused more on ranking and comparison of children than on making a child aware of what she has learnt. By attributing marks to each subject, we are continuously showing the child which particular subject she is good at and which she isn’t. We reinforce the thought that learning happens in compartments that are called subjects.
Assessment should be a process of making a child aware of what she has learnt rather than an instrument to show what she hasn’t. Assessment should help teachers and parents understand what the child hasn’t learnt and how well she has learnt what she has. Based on this, we should be able to see how we can change classroom processes and achieve the curricular objectives we set for our children.
Our curriculum and the assessment should be looked at as means to help our children learn how this world functions, a means to help them understand themselves and to be better human beings. This is a paradigm shift and we have to make this shift. Within our policy framework, schools have the leeway to take this approach. It is important for them to realize this and take a step in this direction. There are quite a few experiments done by schools that have shown us the way and proven that this approach works. Continuous and comprehensive assessment gives us insights into the child’s learning and enables us to reach out to the child and facilitate her learning process. Why then do we hesitate to take this step? Why do we insist on oversimplifying the learning process? We need to realize that we are not making learning easier for our children by neatly classifying and separating topics, but that we are making it more complicated. They struggle through this mind-shift that the world of learning is discrete and in different boxes only to discover later that it is in fact a continuum and a network that they understand so little about.
Let us look at learning as a holistic and comprehensive process which gives children the capability to understand the world they live in as a whole. It builds the capability to engage with the world as they grow up. Let us introduce the world to children the way it is—as a complex yet singularly beautiful experience—and their ability to engage with the world will develop far better.
Azim H. Premji is chairman of Wipro Technologies.