how to make a life


An educational system isn't worth a great deal if it teaches young people how to make a living but doesn't teach them how to make a life wrote activist David Suzuki. It makes a lot of sense but to reach there, we in India have a log way to go. At present our system does not even teach children how to make a living, let alone how to make a life. Education today for a large part of India's children, I mean those born on the wrong side of the fence, is abysmal and practically non-existent. We have first hand knowledge of this as this is what we have been doing for the past decade and a half! Teaching children who attend  State run schools! What is heart breaking and wowing at the same time is to see how easy it is for these kids to catch up and reach the top. A child who may have spent 5 years in school and not learnt to read let alone write properly, needs just a year to come up to the mark. We can barely help a handful.

I saw a TV clip yesterday and it broke my heart.


It is a clip about a school in Bihar where there is a building where 4 schools run, one school in one room! What is heart breaking is to see the children in these images. Far from being unruly or inattentive, they do the best they can in the circumstances and the desire to learn is palpable in the eyes of these children. Shame on us and shame on any Government that allows this to happen. Again and again we seem to be masters at letting down our children. I wonder whether those in power watch such programmes of have a way of finding out the reality on the field. Sadly, it does not seem to be so as even in India's capital city, conditions in government run schools are pathetic.

I hope our new Minister will look at the realities on the ground and before embarking on sweeping changes, will do something for the immediate. I was perturbed but I guess not shocked to see an article stating that the new Minister wishes to include Ancient Texts in the curriculum. I guess it was to be expected though I would have thought that she being a young mother who has children in school does realise that all is not well in our education system. I would have liked her to audit the ground realities and try and see what could be done to better the plight of the children NOW in school.

I agree that many things need to be reviewed but there are some that need immediate attention. If we go by Suzuki's words and look at school as a place that does nor just help you make a living but should teach you how to make a life, the onus upon those to whom we have entrusted the responsibility of imparting the right to education now enshrined in our Constitution to our children is huge. I have nothing against teaching ancient texts and for that matter would love seeing our children learning about ancient texts of other civilisations too, but as things stand now the State has not been able to provide even the basic needed to impart quality education. There are schools without teachers, and without desks and drinking water and toilets: the list is endless. Maybe the first task that needs to be done is fix what one can for the children in school now.

We were all taken aback by the results of the Teacher Eligibility Test in 2013 when 1 in every 56 candidate cleared the exam! We are again shocked when we learnt that Indian children ranked 2nd last when tested on their reading, math and science abilities. The only country they beat was Kyrgyzstan. Yet Indian children do exceedingly well when given an enabling environment. This not only the case of Indian children studying abroad but also of Project Why children who study in State run schools and often come to us with huge lacunas, but make these up in a jiffy and stand their own after that. And this I would like to underline is with the help of untrained teachers. Yet these very teachers have the true skills required for children to succeed: patience, love, motivation and commitment. For us every child is a winner and is so treated. It is up to us to find the spark and ignite it. So on a short term I strongly believe that what we need is motivated people who could pull up the children bogged in the system, children who cannot wait.

It is sad that our present education system dos not even teach people to make a living. This is because of internal flaws in the laws that seemed to have been drafted by people who either do not have children, or have forgotten what education is all about. I will again stress the need to rise the pass percentage from 33 to 50% and to put in abeyance the no fail policy till class VIII. This policy can only work if the teachers are committed and proper internal assessments are done. In many state run schools, answers are written on the blackboard and dutifully copied by the students. I can never forget  the stand-offish manner in which a secondary school Principal told me that they only covered 40% of the course as kids could pass with 33! What they do not realise is that by doing this they shut all the doors to higher education as in today's India you need 99%+ to accede to a  state run University where fees are still affordable. So it becomes imperative for all schools, particularly state run ones to ensure that children get the best education possible and a level playing ground. Now this can happen only by raising the standards of state run schools so that they become an option for middle class parents who I know will welcome this with glee. Only a quality common school system can usher the change we want or pretend to want. As long as political parties will go the 'vote bank' way, this is a long time coming.

Another aberration is the age span for free education: 6 to 14. We all know that the 0 to 6 interval is very important to the child's growth and learning. Pre school teaches many skills - motor, social, conceptual - that prepare the child to formal schooling. Whereas 'rich' kids have literate parents who become their first teachers and are sent to pre schools when they are 36 months, kids from poor homes spend these years on the street, often cared for by a host of people, hearing foul language and  learning poor habits and develop a set of skills that often become a hindrance to their schooling. In many homes they never see a book or newspaper and the only written word they may see is what is printed on boxes and packages. Transiting from forced free spirits to a world of supposed structure is difficult.

True a scheme was mooted more than 3 decades ago which was supposed to run creches where such skills should have been taught. But these are a total failure and need to be re looked at and reinvented. I would urge the new dispensation to include pre school in the free school ambit. That is the beginning but what do you say to a compulsory school system that ends at 14 when the child would be in class VII or VIII. A right to education should mean a right to schooling to the end. 14 makes no sense at all, more so when rather than improve state run schools, the Government has come up with yet another aberration: 25% reservations in all schools for poor kids, what happens to a kid when he reaches the age of 14. Does he leave school, revert to a state run school or have his father rob a bank to pay the high fee. However the reality is that this facility has been hijacked by clever middle class parents so in fact, nothing has changed for the poor children.  

Another flaw in our system is that it presumes that every child should get the same schooling all the way till class XII. With the 33% saga it means that you may have a lot of semi literate kids with a school leaving certificate. Now all kids are not intellectuals and even if they were, the market forces needs other skills that can be taught whilst still in school. It is time we widened the science-commerce- art triad to include vocational skills and even hands on training. A class VIII kid interested in car or bike repairs could begin learning this skill and going to a maintenance centre let us say twice a week so that by the time he finishes school he is ready to join the skilled work force. I hope someone in the corridors that decide the fate of children, think about this. Sadly what we have seen in the past years is scant out of the box thinking.

Children are not and should not be guinea pigs. The CBSE introduced the Formative and Summative Assessment and open book examinations: Some of the main features of Formative assessment are that it is diagnostic and remedial, provides effective feedback to students, allows for the active involvement of students in their own learning, enables teachers to adjust teaching to take account of the results of assessment and recognises the profound influence that assessment has on the motivation and self-esteem of students, both of which are crucial influences in learning. I wonder how many teachers are capable of comprehending this system, let alone using it at all. These can only be successful with well trained teachers and the state run school kids face a double whammy here: uninterested teachers an illiterate parents. Before jumping into new areas it is imperative to ensure that all capabilities to implement them are tested and functional. This is a long term game and not one that can be imposed at the drop of a hat.

Teaching children about ones own culture should not be frowned at, provided it is done in a comprehensive and inclusive manner. All children in the French school system learn that our ancestors the Gauls were good warriors. I did too. But this was in junior classes and as we grew up the curriculum widened and by the end of one's schooling you had a well rounded education. To give just you just an example which will I hope make my point clear, the French Baccalaureate, when I passed it,  had both a written and an oral exam. The oral exam was to test your ability to think out of the box. History was an oral examination and the curriculum was World War II to present times, in my case 1967. There were no choices, you actually picked a question out of a 'hat' and were given 20 minutes to prepare. The question I got was: Had World War II been lost by the allies, what, in your opinion would have been the present economic situation. There is no right or wrong answer. You just needed to defend your point. No matter how much you learn by heart, it will hot help you unless you understand what you learn. In counterpoint to this anecdote, when I wrote my first year Philosophy (Hons) papers in Delhi University, it was replete with 'I think' and 'in my opinion'. I failed! My teacher told me to put all my thoughts in quotes and put a French Philosopher's name, and I would pass. I did and passed with honours! Get the point.

To teach to make a life and not a living, it is important to help children learn to think for themselves and find their solutions. It is impossible to show them that there is more than one 'right' way. Education stands on the famous Delors Pillars of learning Learning to Know, Learning to Do, Learning to Live Together, and Learning to Be.

When I look at education in India, I wonder if we even achieve one of them.