What we want from our children is better “marks" in exams. That’s the wish of an overwhelming majority in this country. In reality we have an examination, not an education, system. In Hindi, the resonance of the two words makes this reality more emphatic, we have a pareeksha tantra, not a shiksha tantra.

The objects of our national obsession —examinations—primarily assess memory and procedural skills. This is true across grades, schools and boards in varying degree. It’s equally true for our higher education system.

Our examinations reflect our notion of learning. We tend to equate mechanical procedural skills and memorization to learning. Rote practice, rigorous rote and more-of-the-same becomes the path to learning, “cracking" exams and, therefore, marks.

While most don’t give it a second thought, some teachers, principals or parents readily agree in a conversation that this examination obsession is not education. Even if they don’t articulate it lucidly, they want children to gain conceptual understanding, to learn to think critically and to analyse, to develop the ability to learn and to learn to apply knowledge; to actually “learn". But even this minority forgets or ignores this real “learning", in real life.

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In part, that is because even this minority is acutely conscious of the “social function" of marks and exams. That of “sorting out": selecting or rejecting for further education, for jobs and social status. The majority is anyhow fixated with this social function. This fixation with the social function completely eliminates the real purpose of examinations, which actually is to assess in order to help further (real) learning.

Many of those involved in education are acutely conscious of this deep flaw in our system. Parts of the government system and many private schools have been continually trying to work on this—with only very slow effect. The effect is slow because real improvement is possible only with sustained synergistic work on the fundamentals, i.e., when all the intertwined complex elements of education build towards facilitating genuine learning and not rote. This includes: capacity of teachers and school leaders, curriculum, books, classroom environment, pedagogical methods, among others.

As work continues on all this, what’s surprising is the inadequate attention paid to improving and changing examinations themselves. Examinations are in a sense a significant point-of-leverage in the education system. The changes in examinations have multiplier effect, going well beyond individual-by-individual or school-by-school effect. This is because examinations are in large measure designed and governed “centrally", for example, by a board or by a district authority. Therefore, changes at the “central" level can impact a very large number of schools—giving that change a substantial leverage.

Improving examinations does not require magic. It’s about changing what the exams assess: moving them from assessing mere memorization and procedural knowledge to assessing understanding, thinking and application.

In collaboration with the Karnataka government the Azim Premji Foundation did this across 9,000 of (largely) rural government schools for three years— 2003-06. While that three-year experience emphasized to us how only changing examinations will not improve education, it also equally emphasized that changing examinations gets the schools to start focusing on what they should focus on instead of rote memorization. There was indeed a substantial leverage effect.

This leverage effect would be even higher, if we were to change the key high stake exams, for example, the class X and XII exams and various “entrance" tests.

The Right to Education Act has got it directionally right: focusing on “comprehensive continuous assessment" (CCA), appropriate assessment for development and the elimination of “high stakes" from assessment. This is a better approach to assessment compared with “examinations" only. However, it will take years, if not decades, before we will be able to implement CCA across the nation. It requires a level of skill and ability on the part of the teachers and schools something that even our most privileged schools struggle with, let alone the large majority of our ordinary (both government and private) schools among the 1.6 million.

In the meanwhile, we can certainly change examinations to reflect real learning. Given the social function of exams, it is one area where industry and general population can play a clear role and don’t. Instead we look at the marks of our children and feel happy or sad, and also look at the marks of potential employees for hiring. We mouth a homily once in a while, but go back to the comfortable, simplifying tyranny of “marks" in our real lives.

We, the “demand" side, are silently accepting this hollow education, in many ways, and visibly through the acceptance of the current examination system. We also think of a dynamic and innovative India. We think of economic prosperity of our country through high skill and value added jobs. We dream of India returning to its rightful place in the world order. These are all castles in the sand: The sand of rote. We are actually building a rote nation.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education. Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com