During my journey between Purola and Uttarkashi, on the ever winding roads of Uttarakhand, my colleague asked questions about our approach to teacher capacity enhancement. One question that occupied more than half the time of our discussion was: “How would teaching maths or science or social sciences or language improve society — which is the final objective of education?” We concluded that it is not merely the teaching of these subjects but how they are taught, keeping in mind the purpose of teaching them and how they are integrated in our day-to-day life, that would contribute to education and society being better.
Today, when we speak to teachers, they often express the need to understand the modalities of teaching subjects better. They also want help in completing the syllabus for the year on time and for ensuring that most students pass the examinations with flying colours. The reputation of the school, and teachers, depends on how the students score in examinations. On the other hand, when you speak with some of the best educationists, they wonder about the relevance of subjects in overall education, given the essence, role and purpose of education described in the national policy documents. They also say that the real purpose of education is to help students realise their inner potential.
What is the reason for this dichotomy between those who know about the real import of education and those who practise it?
Let’s understand the broad essence and purpose of education as articulated by the National Policy of Education, 1986.
While describing the role of education in India, the policy explains that “education is fundamental to our all-round development — both material and spiritual. Education refines sensitivities and perceptions that contribute to national cohesion, builds scientific temper (ability to think rationally and draw conclusions based on evidence and data) and independence of mind and spirit — thus furthering the goals of socialism, secularism and democracy enshrined in our Constitution. Education also develops personpower for different levels of economy contributing to the country’s self-reliance.”
The National Curriculum Framework further details several issues under various subjects classifying the aims of education under the following broader themes:
- Cognitive abilities — Thinking, acquiring specific understanding, creativity, innovativeness and higher-level reasoning.
- Acculturation — Sensitivity, empathy, respect for others.
- Constitutional values — Democracy, equity, equality, justice, humanity.
- Specific skills and vocations — Contributing to national economic and development agenda.
However, there is broad agreement that education today is excessively focussed on rote memorisation. It is almost entirely driven by examinations and scoring marks at any cost.
A study carried out by the Azim Premji Foundation, analysing the Class 10 board examination papers for 10 years, revealed that almost 80 percent of the questions focussed on the ability to retrieve knowledge through memory. There was some focus on application of knowledge but practically no focus on other goals of education — such as creativity, reasoning, scientific temper, empathy, sensitivity and constitutional values. It is, therefore, little wonder that whatever gets tested gets transacted in the classroom.
The teachers and the education system have forgotten that subjects are mere vehicles to achieve the aims of education and not the core of education in themselves. If we accept that education has far-reaching influence on shaping society, it becomes clearer that we must focus on the real goals
Unfortunately, none of the above is dealt with, while teaching subjects. Illustratively, the primary purpose of teaching language is developing abilities to think, express, conceptualise, interpret, communicate and effectively pass on knowledge to others with integrity. The purpose of teaching mathematics is to develop abilities such as logical thinking, reasoning, learning abstractions, structuration and generalisation based on certain principles. It also develops the ability to evolve multiple solutions to solve one problem. Science is all about forming hypotheses, observing, gathering evidence, and arriving at conclusions based on linking data from various experiments and sources. It is about making meaning of patterns in nature, in physics, chemistry and developing curiosity among people to find out more and more. It helps foster creativity, innovation and the ability to arrive at independent conclusions. Science also forces us to ask questions about things that we don’t know.
Social sciences, in addition to dealing with constitutional values and understanding how society is structured around us, also informs us about our past and present — providing some logic for developing our concept for the future. It has the power to bring our diversity to us, seeding the concept of pluralism to deal with the diversity successfully.
And then there is the issue of how the above subjects are presented to learners in an integrated manner. Life unfolds before us in a holistic manner and not as different subjects that we learn. When you teach science or maths or social sciences, you are also dealing with language. Maths is comprehensively used while dealing with concepts in science. Subjects like sports, physical education, art and crafts are meant to develop the abilities of collaboration, team spirit, sensitivity to appreciate human work and psycho-motor skills in addition to the obvious objectives such as physical and mental fitness.
The continuous comprehensive evaluation (CCE) of learners is supposed to facilitate assessment of the students’ progress regarding these abilities and not merely how much they have understood each subject. This requires in-depth understanding of the aims of education by the teachers. CCE is not about merely filling in the forms but about having a deeper insight into the aspects of the development of the child. It is about mastery over various subjects, their nature, their scope and their connect with real life. Illustratively, if the principles of density and specific gravity are not used in understanding the price difference of one kilo of oil vs one litre of the same oil, the concepts remain on paper. If the concept of acid and alkali is not explained to caution the housewife from the impact of detergents on her hands, we are not linking it to developing sensitivity among people. While the student may know theoretical definitions, they would not understand their place in day-to-day life. Any knowledge that is not understood for its relevance to life becomes boring and meaningless to learn.
Thus, education can influence life and society only if subjects are taught after realising the real purpose of teaching. If we continue to deal with education the way it is being done today, we are in for a society that will be devoid of understanding of vital issues such as democracy, equity, justice, sensitivity, humanity, rational thinking and independence of mind.
Dileep Ranjekar is CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation