Watching the Under-19 cricket team in the recently concluded Cricket World Cup was a joy for many reasons. The most important was the brilliant performance of the team in every aspect of the game. They outplayed almost all the other teams and each match was won with thumping margins. However, what I noticed was their behaviour on the ground. Barring a few exceptions of emotional display, they were a very controlled lot. Yes, there was aggression appropriate to the occasion at times. After all, they are young people between 16 to 19 years old and bound to feel great about their achievements. Probably most striking to me were the interviews of Manjot Kalra and Shubham Gill on their performance. Their mastery over the English language was not great but the content of what they said was simple and very mature.
All this pointed to the culture that was built around them by their coach Rahul Dravid — of continuously striving for excellence, keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground and not getting carried away by momentary success.
The biggest congratulations go to their parents who kept aside all norms of the usual traditional standards of education and encouraged them to pursue their area of interest. A preliminary look at their parental background indicates that some of them are in professions that were not at all aligned to sports. Illustratively, the parents of Harvik Desai — the wicketkeeper batsman who hit the inspiring winning shot to clinch the championship — have a tailoring business in the modest town of Bhavnagar in Gujarat since generations. Harvik is also good in academics. It would have been natural for his parents to expect him to pursue his studies and also join the family business. However, they wholeheartedly supported his sporting interest once they realised where his talent and heart lay.
Under the guidance of ‘Dravid Sir’, the boys learnt hard work, discipline, team spirit over individual goals, confidence, humility and a higher order of thinking that enabled them to realise their potential fully. In the interview, almost 12 hours after the match, some of their parents said they have not been able to speak to their sons. They also said that during the fixtures the boys were not allowed to use their mobile phones. That is focus, determination and concentration!
All these are precisely the qualities that our education is supposed to instil but does not necessarily develop.
Scores of parents complain and admit the ‘meaninglessness’ of the way education is happening in thousands of our schools. Parents, members of society, education functionaries and to a large extent the government system knows very well the infirmities in the education system. That there is poor infrastructure, inadequate pupil-teacher ratio, practically no budgets for quality teaching-learning material, low quality textbooks, non-adherence to the norms of the mid-day meal programme and most importantly, inadequate teacher preparation.
We are also aware that examinations and assessment merely focus on rote memory-based performance. And that examinations do not assess abilities such as creative thinking, critical thinking, scientific temper, sensitivity, respect for others, inclusivity, working with people of diverse origin and development of constitutional values (more particularly equity, democracy, socialism and secularism) among children. A large part of the parent and education community is not even aware that developing these abilities is the very essence of education as per our committed education policy. However, we continue to demand unreasonably high performance from our children in a system that is primarily rote memory-based. Even if a child scores 80 percent marks in a given subject, we want the child to strive more. We want the children to completely focus on the requirements of their teachers and schools. The children are constantly burdened with the thought of meeting the expectations of their parents, neighbours and teachers.
So they get very little or no opportunity to explore areas that they truly enjoy and instead spend most of their energy in going through the rigid motions and rituals set by their schools, teachers and parents. The majority of children are unable to connect their education to real life. Some of them fall behind in understanding the subjects and hence score low in the exams. They find many other extra-curricular and out-of-school activities far more endearing.
All the above creates extraordinary pressure on the children to face assessments of various kinds. Children who are not good at rote-memorisation especially find it difficult to cope with a situation in which they have neither understood the subject nor are they able to rote memorise to perform in the assessments. As such, assessments and examinations become the most dreaded ordeals for such students. Adults can never imagine the stress that students experience in facing their parents and teachers when they know that they cannot meet their expectations. Nor can they confide in them — since in all probability, they would be blamed as being “lazy, incompetent and not worthy of being students” and branded as “failures”.
This unbearable stress often leads to terrible decisions by students such as running away from their homes, falling prey to lure created by undesirable elements in society or, in extreme cases, committing suicide. All statistics in India clearly point out the degree of menace that examinations create leading to students committing suicide. India is among countries where a higher proportion of students commit suicide.
This vicious cycle has to stop. We are forcing our children into such decisions for no fault of theirs. We have to majorly correct quality on the supply side. We have to equip our teachers and parents to deal with the complexities in school. The entire draconian system of one time summative examinations that primarily assess rote memory-based education has to be radically reformed. The threatening atmosphere in schools has to change. The school must become a friendly, comfortable place for children that encourages free expression by children. Teachers must become friends, facilitators, mentors and guides who are willing to listen to the children. Discipline has to be replaced by the commitment of students. There has to be a culture of inescapability about commitments by students. There has to be a greater sense of direction and connectedness to real life. We need to create processes that integrate various subjects and disciplines so that children are able to see a compelling need to understand them. We have to radically improve the infrastructure, culture and practices in schools to enable “all round development” of children.
If we don’t invest adequately in making school a preferred place to be in and education an enjoyable and yet a rigorous and meaningful process to go through, we are simply torturing our children and then expecting them to develop into responsible citizens of this country.
When we know that the education system is not geared to achieving its goals, when we know we are not preparing our teachers for achieving these goals and that children are not learning what they are supposed to, merely forcing them to go through the motion of learning is an injustice to our children!
Dileep Ranjekar is CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation