A Conversation About Schools - Part 1

It all started with @subatomic’s tweet of requiring MOOCs for primary education. I am of the view that MOOCs are like Desktop Linux. There are just round the corner to eat up colleges every time you hear about them. But this post isn’t about the MOOCs, I have no experience and hence no locus standi (I hope I used the right word) to comment about it.

What I have is, rather a rare set of opinions formed through almost 3 years of working with the same set of school children from 4th-6th standard. It is in the form of conversation because, I go adrift without anchor questions.

Q: What is wrong with the schools?

A: Well, I would ask which types of schools. Each school on the country has its own niche market chosen and has its own agenda to establish. From caste supremacy, religious fanaticism, to elitism and absolutely trivial stuff like wearing a particular colour. So I think it would be wiser if we be more specific about the questions.

Q: Ok, let us start from the beginning, Why do say MOOCs are bad for primary education? With the technology we have shouldn’t all of be home tutoring our kids already? I think we are just cowing to the peer and family pressure by admitting our children in conventional schools.

A: Primary education for starters isn’t teaching 4 year olds the alphabets of 3 languages on the same day, for every day of the year. Primary education mostly involves development of cognition and personality of the individual. Having spend the 2 years as teacher of late primary (4th, 5th grade), What I expect to see, at that stage as 8-9 yr olds, are intellectual curiosity and emotional intelligence to understand others. By MOOCs and home schooling, what we deprive is the peer group for the child to interact with. I would say, it is a necessary for a kid in primary to be in a group of 15-20 other kids. It provides for a lot of physical activity and interaction, and helps in learning and understanding societal patterns (how people as a group react and interact) and emotion. Kids tend to become shy, timid, or even extremely sensitive and violent for very little provocation, if they are kept alone without enough interaction and feedback of peer group. The old saying is, “It takes a village to raise the child”. And MOOCs and home schooling don’t even constitute a street.

Q: So you mean to say language acquisition should take a back seat? You throw in fancy terms like emotional intelligence, societal patterns and emotions.

A: I am no domain expert. Here is my view. When it comes to language acquisition, the earlier the better. That is one reason why KinderGarten kids study A-Z. But the how of it is very rarely attempted to be understood. Language acquisition has to happen naturally and first it starts from Phonic awareness (sounds) rather than the Script awareness (letters). Ability to decipher sounds that make up words and understand meanings matter the most. The more the language is used around the child, the better the development. Talking with the kid, pointing and naming objects, reading bed time stories are a great way to do it. Once phonic awareness is established learning letters becomes easier. The key here is to understand that phonic awareness develops at different speeds for different kids.

To tie it to the previous question, what we expect to see in 4th standard is the confidence to tackle their text books for reading. Note that I didn’t say “ability to read”, I say “confidence to tackle”. The confidence to read comes from years of being read to them, having attempted reading and phonic awareness and knowledge of the letters and their phonic patterns.

Q: So you basically mean, letters A-Z need to be taught?

A: I will simplify it for you, letters before stories is the cart before the horse. This is the train of thought, I like the stories my father reads -> I would like to read a story when my father isn’t around -> I know the words, but can’t read them -> I want to read the words -> I will learn the letters so that I can read. See how naturally the actions flow due to the natural curiosity of the child rather than forcing the child to learn 26 letters without a clue of what and why.

Q: Ok, I get it. What about the majority of the population who don’t/can’t read English?

A: Skills like phonic awareness and comprehension are language independent. Mother tongue is the best point to start. These skills can be transferred to other languages like English in school, where the teacher can repurpose the skills for a different set of scripts.

Q: What about the illiterate parents who can’t read to their children?

A: Dude! Seriously? We started talking about MOOCs. Can’t you see we aren’t talking about illiterate parents here? God.

Q: I was just kidding. What about marking/grading system? I think it is one of the worst things about schools. I hated the report cards.

A: I joined a month late after the schools officially started. The day I joined my class had a test. The kids knew nothing because of teacher absence and almost all kids got nothing for marks. So I gave them whatever I fancied. A couple of months passed, being straight out of college, it took me time to understand the role. So the term was a wash and I again gave fancy numbers to all. After the term I realized I knew nothing about the class and the kids. I took me a full year before I understood that, the current system of evaluation and marking is a century of optimization, to the problem of evaluating learning. The problem is not in the 0-100 or the A-F system we chose to adopt, neither is it the Continuous Evaluation or Term End Evaluation strategy we follow, it is in the people who do the evaluation. There is a big difference between a teacher who has to evaluate 15 kids on three domains of academics, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities and another teacher who has to do that same for 40 kids.

Q: So you mean to say there is nothing wrong with the current system of grading students?

A: As I said before, it is optimized solution for a problem. But I didn’t say, it is the best solution. The key factor for optimization here was the scale. India is just too big to dream for a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:15. So it has optimized for a large student to teacher ratio. Hence the number of factors that teachers consider for evaluation has dropped to the minimum to save time and effort. So what is left are the test papers and marks.

Q: I understand that a better form of evaluation can be created if we reduce the student teacher ratio.

A: Sadly the answer is not that simple. I will explain the complexity and let you do the pondering. As I said, it is an optimization of a century. While we reduce the student teacher ratio, we also need to equip the new teachers to be better evaluators. Being not used to such an evaluation system themselves (they haven’t worried about 3 domains of development when they were kids) they will tend to do a poor job at it. For example, a system of evaluation called Continuous Comprehension Assessment (CCA) is followed in Tamil Nadu. It takes into account the activity of the student across the term (Formative Assessment - multiple written tests, multiple activities etc.,) to decide upon 40% of the score, while a term-end written exam (Summative Assessment) decides the 60% of the score. Theoretically the kid is evaluated how he performs over a period of time and also how much he retains long term. Being never undergone through this process, the teachers are confused about how to do it, or not willing to spend the time and energy to do it, or cannot afford do it due to the high student teacher ratio. I see all sorts of shortcuts to this problem called CCA. Conduct a mid term exam - assign 20%, take a look at their handwriting, dress code, class work neatness - assign 5%, see their attendance percentage - assign 5%, give them a cut & paste project - assign 10%. Use this 40% and call it CCA. Works for everybody from over-burdened teacher or incompetent teacher to the kids.

Q: What so wrong about the above optimization of marks, still the kid is evaluated across the spectrum right? I mean the split is better than a single exam for 100 anyways.

A: Well not really. In a number of cases that 20% from mid term Assessment becomes the to total 40% of CCA Formative Assessment. Even in cases where split up is necessary the 5%,5% and 10% are a function of the 20% from written exams. You get 100 in exam, you get a 100 for projects automagically. So in practice it is simply 2 exams instead of one that decides the marks of the child. Even in schools where projects are required for evaluation, the projects themselves are laughable most times. It is a matter of buying a sheet of sticker from the stationary shop and sticking it in a project notebook, or buying thermocol (those white styrofoam like sheets) and sticking or painting stuff on it. Most of the time Science projects are indistinguishable from modern art. The amount of time and money spent on the current way of doing projects have almost no impact on learning except taking away the free time from the kids.

Q: What is your point?

A: You can’t throw away grading system. Evaluation of learning is necessary for a number of reasons. And it is complex than you think to be fixed in a generation.

Q: Maybe a change in syllabus can work.

A: The term “syllabus” is too big for me to comment upon. But here are my observations. Syllabus changes aren’t always going to be good. The US recently created a common syllabus for all its states called that Common Core Standards from a heavy sponsorship by the Gates Foundation. On my first year, I struggled with it. I consider it pathetic. I will give you an example of why I think so. In Mathematics, there is problem called addition. All of us have met with it as kids in school. It requires that we know one concept, the concept of carry over to the next digit. If you have mastered it, you have mastered addition. But common core has a different notion about that. It says, Grade 1 student should be able to do 1 digit addition, Grade 2: 2 digit Addition, Grade 3: 3 digit Addition and Grade 4: 4 Digit Addition. You see the issue? Well, I will point it for you. Kindly tell me the difference a 3 digit addition problem and a 4 digit addition problem. What stops a kid being to do carry over from attempting a million digit addition? But reading the Common Core makes you feel so logical about the whole thing, except it is barely. Learning isn’t a linear graph of objectives.

The reason I tell you this is after millions and millions of dollars this is the kind of new-age syllabus American states have adopted to make sure “No Child is Left Behind”. Don’t expect our Indian educators to do any less.

Q: You mean the syllabus is good as such?

A: I wouldn’t jump from “let’s chuck it” to “I love it” about the syllabus. But I think the current National Curriculum Framework (NCF) has a decent outline of what to be taught at what age.

Q: You seem to be pointing at something else then.

A: Yes, it is the content in the books that are a big pain. If the school you choose, uses NCERT Books, at least at the primary level, I would say it is one of the best things. Their English readers called Marigold, for example, is so thoughtfully put. You will see that pictures cover almost the entire page in Grade 1-2, the words used are very simple, the word count is less and the font size is big so kids can identify them clearly. As we progress through the standards, the images and font sizes get smaller, word count and complexity increases gradually. It is so wonderful that we use it as our main English Book instead of the Samacheer Text Books that the Tamil Nadu government gives us. The Samacheer books on the other hand are a disaster. I sometimes feel thankful I didn’t have to trudge through it when I was a kid at school.

Q: So opting for a CBSE school would solve the content problem?

A: I have no experience as a teacher in CBSE school. But all my secondary education happened in CBSE school, and I am biased to think I had a better education than state board people. But that has nothing to do with my judgement on the Samacheer books, they are so all over the place. Download and read the 6th standard Science/Social books if you want to have a taste of it.

Q: Ok, I get the idea. Can we talk about other stuff like teachers, children and parents?

A: I need to sleep, let me see if we could do that tomorrow.