By Rote to By Right – Simple prescriptions for an ailing Indian Education System

While the biggest impediment plaguing our education system today is the curse of rote learning, the elephant in the room is a rigid and stereotypical curriculum that solely focuses on churning out torch bearers for professions, thereby paying scant or even non-existent regard to vocation. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the mindset of political mavens and administrators alike to tide over this twin ailment and to position Indian education in a league whose underlying philosophy is unlike any that is currently prevalent.

The bane of Indian education lies in a system that provokes comparison, induces complexes of inferiority as well as superiority, inculcates in tender minds an unbelievably strong peer pressure and puts both students as well as parents in a state of perpetual stress! While grades ossify creativity, the doling out of ranks and classes stratify students and compartmentalize them on the sheer basis of academic and rote distinction as against practical, intuitive and unique talents. Students become mere statistical denominations as 99.8 outwits 99.7 who in turn nudges ahead of 99.6! This is one mindless race which makes even rat races seem an exercise in virtuous endeavor! Right from Grade 1 onwards, children are made to lug and haul weighty bags and forced to sit through even more weightier subjects. A child whose real talent lies in strumming a guitar or rappelling cliff faces is enforced to master the Theorems of Pythagoras and the esoterica of Newton’s Thermodynamics. While a fundamental and basic level of the sciences is a must for every student, there ought to be avenues for channeling their real passion or calling. Mainstream education may churn out millions of engineers, doctors, scientists and accountants, but it is only creativity that has the gift of unleashing a Leonardo Da Vinci, or an Anthony Bourdain, or a Jorge Luis Borges or a Sachin Tendulkar. Hence there needs to be a judicious and necessary mix of rigorous mainstream education and an equally exuberant and effervescent opportunity for facilitating and fostering vocational excellence.

India can take a leaf (or two) from the Scandinavian education philosophy in general, and the Finnish method of learning, in particular. There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from a solitary exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers’ union.

While each country’s need for devising an education system is unique and India might not be favourably well off in embracing the Swedish Model lock, stock and barrel, there is no doubt that we can derive a good amount of inspiration and lesson from the Finnish Model. It will at least put paid to the heinous practice of treating our unwitting, unsuspecting and hapless children as fierce competitors with a win-at-any-cost or winner-take-all outlook. Another area where Indian education can embellish itself is by focusing more on nation building and societal ethics. For example, every student should be taught that:

  • Streets, roads, walls and any other standing vertical object is not a personal dust bin and hence people ought to refrain from spitting and relieving themselves in the open. Spitting is NOT a national past time!
  • Archaeological monuments and heritage sculptures are not experimental canvasses for expressing feelings of jilted or scorned love and should not be unduly tampered with;
  • Honking without rhyme or reason at traffic intersections and in crowded traffic is neither a novelty nor a necessity;
  • Children with special needs are as invaluable to the progress of a nation as are normal children. Stephen Hawking being an excellent example;
  • Learning about preservation of environment; protection of wildlife and endangered species and preventing the cascading effects of global warming is equal in importance to mastering either the Fermat theory or Bernoulli’s principle;

The word ‘hunger’ when it comes to education should be the singularly reserved preserve of knowledge and not of the anatomy. No child who comes to school for learning should go hungry. A hungry child is a shame not only on the concerned school but on the entire nation. Hence a drastic extension of the existing mid-day meal and an expansion of the nourishing ingredients forming part of such meal becomes a vital and critical imperative in encouraging a child to come to school and inculcate the requisite knowledge.

Parents would also need to undergo a literal transformation in their breadth and depth of thinking about education. Attaining a degree in Scuba Diving is in no way inferior to passing out of medical school as a potentially famous cardiothoracic surgeon; a rock star gains equal (if not more) stature and status in the eyes of his adoring fans as does a nuclear scientist going on to build his country’s space station. The step-motherly attitude hitherto reserved for vocations must be obliterated and vocations should be accorded the same status and recognition as provided to a profession. To facilitate such broad minded thinking, specialized educational institutions focusing on vocations should be established across India. Here again Finland is a stellar example. Teachers in Finland spend lesser hours at school each day & less time in classrooms. This freed up time is used to build curriculums and assess students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. To quote Kari Louhivuori, a sixth grade teacher at the Kirkkojarvi Comprehensive School in Espoo, a suburb west of Helsinki, “we have no hurry, children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

We Indians need to pay extreme attention to Louhivuori’s last sentence – “Why stress them out indeed?”

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