What do we want from transportation? Multiple things, for example, to get to places where we want to go, along with safety, speed, low cost and comfort. How is this done? Through multiple modes and systems, such as trains, roads, cars and carts. How does all this work? It is designed, developed, operated through the highly complex transportation sector and its players. Most of us, users of transportation, may have a preference set of what we want from transportation, and on that basis may prefer certain modes. However, only the foolhardy among us, will venture to offer suggestions on the “hows” of transportation, for example, on how to manage safety of flights or to design roads. We realize that all these matters of “how” require specific expertise, and cannot be decided on the basis of our opinions. This is basic common sense.
This basic common sense is often abandoned, collectively and individually, when it comes to education. We have strong opinions about what we want from education; we also have definite and strong views on the “hows”, and want decisions on that basis. This approach has over time deeply influenced the institutional structures, processes and politics of decision-making in education.
An example of this phenomenon is currently on the boil. This is the matter of the “No Detention Policy” (NDP) as mandated by the Right to Education Act (2009). The essence of the policy is that children should not be “failed” and detained up to Class 8. This also means there are no “examinations” in the narrow traditional sense of the word up to Class 8. Instead, the Act mandates a process of Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) to assess and evaluate the student’s learning. CCE regularly assesses student progress in multiple ways and uses the feedback in the teaching-learning process. It gives a continuous progress record and specific inputs for improving learning. Unlike exams, it can also assess things such as social attitudes, creativity, emotional development and perseverance. Research evidence across the world suggests that such methods (called formative assessments) tend to improve student learning.
In the reality of our country’s education system, the use of CCE is far from perfect. That is because effective implementation of CCE requires multiple other things such as a low pupil-teacher ratio, high-capacity teachers and a culture of teacher empowerment. However, even a poorly done CCE that uses many more parameters and feeds into the teaching-learning process is superior to a traditional, high-stakes examination system that is inherently narrow and often traumatic for students.
But all this is bunkum to the voices demanding the return of exams and of the practice of failing kids, and detaining them in grades. They have two interrelated arguments for this. First, unless children have fear of failing, they won’t learn. Second, if you don’t detain kids in earlier grades, then they go out of Grade 8 into 9 not having learning appropriate for Grade 8.
The first argument is just plain wrong. Fear of any kind, including that of exams and failing, has detrimental effect on curricular learning for children. This is established over and over, but it doesn’t matter to those whose claims are based on “but we learnt so much because of fear of exams”. That’s like saying, “I have flown millions of miles, so I can tell the air traffic controller how to manage their air space”.
The second argument is both deceptive and wrong. It’s an argument of administrative convenience, not of educational validity. By detaining a child in a grade, you get her to repeat the whole syllabus of that grade. This ignores the educational reality that children learn in a continuum, and any pass or fail categorization is a narrow and invalid simplification. After having been detained in a grade, given appropriate effort from the teacher, the child may learn those things that she has not in three months, but will still continue for another nine months in the same grade, repeating stuff that she already has learnt. There is also social stigma associated with “failing”, and this has deeply damaging effects on a child.
In either situation of detention or no-detention, the educational efforts required for the child to learn remain the same; formative assessment combined with no-detention helps in these efforts, whereas detention harms the child and helps only in easy labelling required for administrative reasons. The fact is that all children can learn the curricula in eight years, given appropriate pedagogy and environment. Detention is punishment to the child for the failings of the education system, so it’s cruel and unjust, along with being completely ineffective.
The issue of NDP and the related issue of CCE is an emblematic case of a “how” being influenced by non-educational considerations. For now, the ministry of human resource development has taken the sensible stance of “we need to consider all educational inputs before taking any decision”. Let’s hope that voice of the frequent flyers, doesn’t prevail in the design of the air traffic control system.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere-