Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What's wrong with our schools and why environmentalists should care

I walked into a south Delhi market this summer and saw the sign on the right. The 16 year old girl selling me my Airtel recharge coupon told me that she would happily make a rain water harvesting project for my children. The price? Five hundred rupees, including all materials. (She'd do the balance of their holiday homework for another 500 rupees). Apparently most ninth standard students in Delhi are assigned a rainwater harvesting project at some point during the year, and this girl knew an opportunity when she saw one; business was good, she said.

I was pleased to hear that so many Delhi schools are teaching about rain water harvesting systems. I was sorry to hear that many students are buying their way out of the assignment, though I suppose this should have come as no surprise; there are many shops in Delhi offering essentially the same services.

This, along with the half-yearly exams my own children suffered through in September, has got me thinking about the state of our schools. And the truth is, I think they are in a very sorry state.

The exam system is part of it: students are rewarded for regurgitating content, not for their ability to solve challenging problems or to express new ideas. But the exams are only part of the problem. I'm no expert, but let me give you just a few examples of what's wrong with schools today--and why those who care about the environment and justice should be worried.

Reading: When was the last time your child read a real book in school, or was asked to read a book at home? Mine almost never are. Instead, they mug up stories from a thin reader that they mostly read before the first week of class is over. Why does this matter? Reading is a form of thinking, and you can't read or think well without a lot of practice. The more you read, the more ideas you are exposed to. Most of us learn to read well in spite of what happens in school, not because of it. The funny thing is, this doesn't halve to be painful: research suggests that "pleasure reading" is not only fun--it's good for us!

Writing: When my child was in fifth, he was told he needed to improve in three very important writing genres: application for leave; telegraph writing; and notice writing. When I asked his teacher why these genres were important for 11 year olds to master, I was told, "Ah, but they need to learn them for the tenth boards." I smiled and nodded. What else could I do? But the truth is, if our children spend five years learning how to write a proper telegraph, then we are in deep trouble, indeed. We need to teach children to write things that actually matter to them, because that's what good writers do. (Future employers, relax: if you ask a good writer to write a notice or a telegraph in real life, she will figure out how to do it properly in no time.)

Maths: Our students spend an extraordinary amount of time learning how to solve problems that involve very large numbers. This looks impressive, but requires very little thought: once you learn the "right way" to solve such a sum, you just plug in the numbers. Pity the child who tries to find an original path to a solution. And since we spend so much time teaching computation, there is very little time left to teach children other important things like how to read graphs and interpret data. Yet without a strong foundation in statistics, children will never grow up to be adults capable of understanding what is really happening in the world of science, politics and the economy. In fact, a poor grounding in statistics is partly why so many people actually believe we are entering into a period of global cooling, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Holiday Homework: Many schools assign homework over the summer holidays. This often involves "projects" like the rainwater harvesting project I mentioned earlier. The problem is that even here, the emphasis is on how the product looks, more than it is on the thinking that went into it. Hence, parents (or enterprising 16 year olds) end up doing much of the work involved in these projects. And students too often learn nothing but the value of neat presentation.

My son's school once invited parents to a display of summer holiday projects on the subject of "our environment". Students stood next to their projects and recited mini-speeches upon request. For example: "Sir, this is a hut next to a river. You see there is no sewer so the river becomes polluted. We must keep our rivers clean. Thank YOU!" When I asked this student what was to be done to clean the river, short of moving the hut, I got a blank stare. This kind of thing happened time and again.

We are living in a world that will present our children with enormous environmental, political and economic challenges. Climate change, water shortages, failing farms, and, yes, polluted rivers; these and many other problems threaten to make an already difficult situation much, much worse. Memorizing huge amount of information without thinking about it, doing things for show only, buying their way out of difficult assignments--none of this will prepare our children for the world we are leaving them.

So what are we to do? In the long run, we need to advocate for a system of education that values learning over marks on exams. Democracy cannot function well if people of all classes are not taught to read, write and think effectively, so it goes without saying that efforts to reform education should not be limited to schools for wealthy children.

This is not the place for detailed proposals, but let me make three brief suggestions. First, let's not rely on the idea that providing a computer to all villages will solve the equality problem. A few books, a free lunch and a well trained, caring teacher who shows up every day are worth more than a dozen computers. Second, we should support efforts to decrease testing in general. And we should advocate for exams that measure learning rather than short term memory. Finally, all children should be given opportunities to write about things that matter to them. If we give them opportunities to share the resulting stories, essays and poems with an audience that consists of more than their teacher, that is even better.

None of these ideas are new. And some of them would be easier to implement than you might think. But realistically speaking, real educational reform is not going to happen quickly, so if you've got children, you've got your work cut out for you. In may ways, I think it makes sense to start with reading. First, read to your children; then later read with them, and finally and always show them you also are a reader.

Of course it also makes sense to advocate for change within your child's school and within the larger system of education. But being an advocate is a big job, and you may feel unprepared, as I often do. To address this, you can explore the net. There's a really thoughtful discussion about the alternative schools here, though I wish there was more in it about Delhi schools.

For the big picture, try reading Mindfields, "the journal about ideas and alternative education."
I've read a few issues and I like what I see. They seem to be asking the right questions and moving the discussion forward in healthy ways. They aren't trying to sell you on one particular school, but they are strong advocates for the kind of alternatives we need. And they give examples of schools that are doing wonderful things. Mindfields says it is a magazine that "is invested in education for its true purpose: educating children as opposed to building empires." To me, that sounds like a pretty good place to start.


  1. Hey,

    check out the schools water portal (http://schools.indiawaterportal.org). I am associated with it, so let me know what you think :-)

  2. @Deepak something happened to your link: indiawaterportal.org

  3. Hari Batti Green Light Dhaba Internet

    Telegrams very important to economy - stop - Will send money from abroad via Western Union - stop - Does the dhaba accept Mastercard? - end -

  4. @Deepak, Thanks so much for stopping by! I look forward to looking at your link.

    @plastic thanks for the link fix; also, you might have a point about telegraph writing!


  5. My scheming mind can't help but feel that if parents are really doing the rainwater harvesting projects for their kids, then it's actually targeting the right people! While I agree that not much thought goes into the projects, some important concepts are inculcated into the kids. For one they'll at least be aware of what it is and even if they don't know how to do it, they'll at least understand that saving water is important.

    Also, I don't think anyone ever gets to say that what he or she learnt in school was useful - heaven knows I hated school. But as Einstein said, we go to school not to learn anything but to train the mind. Mugging up a lot of junk is next to useless, but it sure shows a kid the value of hard work. The flaw of course is that people are good at different things. I could never mug anything to save my life.

    But you really do have a point when you talk about originality being stifled - that's the other side of the coin. But I don't agree that tests should be reduced. As I said, I would treat schools as a place to train the mind and removing tests would simply lower the motivation. But original thinking really needs to be rewarded. Unfortunately I'm not aware of any school system that can encourage that. I think the place to reward originality is at home with parents who actually notice the kid and who really care for him or her.

    After all, with the number of kids in a classroom these days, a teacher simply doesn't have time to keep track of each. That's a reality we're going to have to live with I'm afraid.

  6. @Bhagwad, The reason I think tests should be reduced is that they motivate teachers and students to do the wrong thing: mug up. Rote memorization is far less valuable than we think, imho. People actually forget things they don't put to use in some original thinking of their own. That might be a math idea that is put to use in a problem that is interesting and challenging. It might be a statistic used in a blog post. For example, you are an expert on animal rights now, because you wrote a post about it that required you to martial ideas, evidence and arguments--you will not forget that information. My son, on the other hand, cannot remember the names of the 20 stadiums he learned for his GK test last year. In fact, he forgot them within days: memory dump. I hoped he would learn the value of hard work; he learned a much more cynical lesson: sometimes you have to learn useless stuff to get through fifth standard; the real fun starts when you past the test and can read. But the funny thing is, he does well in the science Olympiad not because he mugs up, but because his general knowledge (the real kind, not the kind you cram into your head for the exam) is strong. Why? Because he reads everything he can get his hands on.

    Ah, but you are right, this is a very difficult problem and there is that reality you speak of. I do think we could let go of the telegraph writing, however! Why not just do sms? Or better still, teach the kids to tell interesting stories! Couldn't hurt! Would write more, but am in a rush!

  7. The current textbooks could be blamed to an extent for the children's lack of interest in real learning. I recently found my mothers math textbooks from class 10, 11 and 12, and I must say I was surprised at the quality of content in my mother's textbook. If I had that textbook when I was in school, I wouldn't have been so bad at math as I am. Consequently, I read the chapters in the book and I feel more confident about solving those simple math problems! Current textbooks need a facelift; they really need to instill interest in the child and make the child want to know more about it.

    Coming to the projects, it really would be difficult for a child to come up with a project when the child has no prior experience with projects. Children should be given simple projects to be done depending on their age right from the start of their schooling. It's only then the child would develop the kind of thinking process that projects require.

  8. @Manasa, Thanks for stopping by! Text books could be improved. But so could instruction; I think students need to challenged to move beyond the set material found in the syllabus. They need to actually think about what they are learning as they are learning it. Otherwise it's just rote memory. And you are right about projects. Giving students more choice in what projects they pursue might help.

  9. Encourage children to read? Fifteen years ago a concerned teacher called my parents to inform them (cue tones of horror) that I'd brought a book to school to read during recess.

    I agree with all of this, incidentally.

  10. @Aishwarya,
    At the last parent teacher meeting I went to, this was one complaint I heard. That and handwriting, of course!

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