November 11th, 2016
Image courtesy : Wiki Commons
That is the sound of Rahul’s teacher , Sapna ma’am, hitting him on the knuckles, when he failed to include the abbreviation of a tangent in its definition as it is stated in the textbook.
“The tangent(tan) of an angle is the ratio of the sine to the cosine. Rahul, if you make these types of silly mistakes, you are certain to lose marks in the exam!” Sapna ma’am admonished.
Rahul spent much of the past year preparing for his 10th standard exam, attending tuition classes seven days a week, where he would receive past exam questions and attempt to memorise the answer to each of them. Everyone knew that those who memorised the most, scored the highest. He often found himself staying up till late night using visualisation techniques for theorems, and mnemonics to recall the keywords he had to use in each definition. But what about understanding the concepts? Instead of focusing on understanding literature, or analysing scientific phenomena, it seemed like his entire future hinged on whether or not he could memorise what he had to write in an exam.
Rote Learning Crisis
Rahul could be virtually any student in any school in our country. According to a nationwide survey conducted by EZVidya, 80% of the principals believe that the emphasis on rote learning is the leading cause for the poor quality of our education system. WIPRO recently conducted a study that found that the practice of rote learning wasn’t just a problem in the state funded schools, but it is equally prevalent in the country’s top schools .
Some attribute the focus on rote learning to the traditional practice of memorizing religious texts, whether the Vedas, the Qur’an or any other text. Another faction states that this system was put in place by the British during colonial rule as a way to suppress critical thinking. Either way, rote learning has been the staple of the Indian education system for many years. While many Indians have achieved success despite this system, simply being able to recall information is not enough in a world that has access to everything at the touch of a button. A survey of 200 Indian and foreign companies found that only 14% of Indian graduates were prepared for the workforce, largely because most graduates were unable to apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems.
The Need for Strong Leadership
The obsession with rote learning will only change if we have stronger leadership in our education system and schools. The leaders of our schools – block officers, inspectors, management, and principals – must shift their focus from just administration. Leaders should ensure that all schools facilitate a deeper understanding of content so that each child in each classroom is equipped with the ability to take information and apply it when necessary. This will begin to happen when schools are supported to implement three simple practices: planning, assessment, and accountability.
Most teachers have limited or no planning before they teach a class. This means that teachers tend to convey information in the easiest way possible, which is writing on the board or reading out of a book while students copy it in their books. The leaders in our schools must institute systems that support the teacher to plan not only what information they will present to students, but also how the students will engage with the content. The process of thinking about this beforehand pushes teachers to incorporate practices beyond the standard rote method of teaching and learning.
Much of the discussion about assessment of students has been about the need for board exams, or the frequency of assessment, in policies like the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) mandated by the Right to Education Act (RTE). However, there must also be a focus on the types of questions being asked to our students whether in board exams, class tests, or even when a teacher is simply posing a question to his or her class. Students must not only be asked questions for which they must recall the correct information, but assessments must also be designed to provide students the opportunity to show that they can analyze and synthesize content and apply their learning to real-world problems.
When evaluating the success of schools, leaders should not just concentrate on the pass percentage that they have achieved, but must also structure time in their day to observe the teaching-learning process. They should stress that it is important to understand the concept and apply it to real world problems, rather than just memorise the definitions.
Learning for Understanding
Rahul’s 10th standard experience could be different. Instead of fretting over losing marks because of a misplaced word, he could be spending his time understanding how the tangent function can unlock the secrets to our existence – how planets revolve, how tall our highest peaks are, and how sound moves through the atmosphere. Encouraging application based learning and active participation in classroom, and keeping curiosity alive through an environment open for discussions and debates, will allow the students to be motivated to step towards research is what will allow our country to flourish. Responding to the rote learning crisis is one of the biggest challenges facing school leaders, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the nation depends on it.
Sameer Sampat is the CEO of the India School Leadership Institute (ISLI), an organization that focuses on supporting school leaders in private and government schools to drive high-performing schools that commit to academic achievement and character development of children from under served communities.