Thursday, 26 January 2012

Evaluate your life !

By Vidya Jonnalagadda

Well, we are constantly doing that – evaluating our life – in terms of health, wealth, and familial/social relationships. But have you assigned marks to it? Last year, my life scored 72.8/100 but the year before it was 69.3/100.

Does this sound preposterous? But this is where we are headed in terms of assigning numerical values, or marks - to put it simply, to all activities that our children are doing. If a certain news channel and celebrity endorsements that it has garnered become successful in changing the education policy (now why a news channel should seek to shape policy instead of reporting events and analyzing their implications is another matter), soon students will be awarded marks for games and sports.

How will this work? A child running 100 meters under 20 seconds will get 10 points and those running it between 20 and 30 seconds get 8 points? Score 2 goals in an inter-house football match and capture another 10 points? Play in an inter-school tournament and get 20 points? Will playing in a team event fetch more points than participating in an individual event? And what if a child “fails” in sports – will it affect their promotion/admission to the next class? Will we see the emergence of ‘sports tuition centers’ and ‘guess papers’ and ‘study guides’ to ensure success in the sports Units Tests and Final Exams?

I am not just questioning how marks will be awarded in a fair and transparent manner – I am disturbed by the very thought of awarding marks for everything a child does. Most of the teachers I meet are distressed about the marks-centric mindset of students (one of my students asked “What is biodiversity for 8 marks?”), parents (one teacher told me that a parent threatened to move her child to another school - “Arre, I am paying you so much and my child got only 79%? I should move him back to his old school where he used to get 80%!”), and management (one of my friends filling in for a KG teacher was told “Teach only 4 names of colors, then all students will get 100%. Their parents are paying our high fees, so they expect their children to score at least 90% (for a related story, please see previous blog ‘When is a vegetable not a ‘real’ vegetable?”)). The marks-centric approach has converted school textbooks into Units for 2 marks or 5 marks (in some cases, even fractional marks like 0.5 marks). Fortunes have been made by private bodies (I can’t call them ‘educational institutions’ since their only activity is getting students to repeatedly answer ‘model’ questions) catering to the quest for marks. I see in my college that students do not put in any effort to understand important subjects like ‘Science and Civilization’, ‘Indian History and Culture’, and ‘Environmental Studies’ since marks for these subjects are not ‘counted’ in calculating the final grade for their B.Sc. degree.

Have we reached the day where children will refuse to play (or paint or sing or dance) unless they get marks for their efforts? And, as adults, will they evaluate their lives on a numerical scale?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Education for what?

By Vidya Jonnalagadda

What is the purpose of education? Today, most students (and their parents), expect that following the yellow brick road of the ‘3 R’s will lead them to the magical Emerald City of the ‘3E’s. In other words, Reading + Writing + Arithmetic = Excellent Education Ò Easy Employment Ò Enormous (or at least enough) Earnings!

Recently I read in the news that fewer than 20% of our fresh engineering graduates are employable! If a technical course holds such bleak job prospects, what can basic science promise? As a teacher of basic science, my colleagues and I often ponder on how what we teach can be translated into employability for our students, because one main reason cited for the falling enrollment in science courses is the lack of career opportunities. 

A couple of years ago, our college held an annual function for the MBA students. As I could not attend the Inaugural Session, I asked my father’s friend, a distinguished retired officer of the IAF (Indian Air Force) and a guest at that function, about what the speakers said. He told me that he was shell shocked by what he had heard – (paraphrasing here): “When I was a student, I was told that the purpose of education was to lead a refined life – to appreciate good science, powerful literature, and beautiful Fine Arts. Jobs were just for keeping together body and soul. Today, speaker after speaker told the students how education (degree) is a weapon to bludgeon one’s peers (read competition) into oblivion and soar to success (read corporate positions).”

So, what is right? Do we learn to earn (and lead a lavish lifestyle)? Do we read to breed greed? Or do we study to clear from our minds the muddy mess of ignorance, arrogance, and intolerance? Learn to turn into gentle, considerate, and creative beings? 

I like best the 'definition' of education given many years ago by my friend, Dr. Mokshay Madiman (now at Yale) – “Education should make us good citizens”. Which means law-abiding, responsible builders of strong communities (good parents and good neighbors), and of course, tax-paying (good employers and employees) people who also know and exercise their civic rights.

So, is it possible to design syllabi for high school and college science courses which not only impart strong subject knowledge, but also inculcate skills to convert this knowledge into employment or entrepreneurship?