Friday, July 24, 2009

The SSLC Examination Controversy

The recent announcements from central and state education ministers regarding the idea of discontinuing the SSLC examination have led to some people strongly opposing it. I don't think that the idea is as bad as many of them make it out to be, though I am not sure doing away with the examination is the solution for the problems at hand. To be frank, I don't have a readymade answer to the question. But let me just try to make my thoughts clear.

Let us see first what our education system is trying to achieve. From what I can see, the aim of our education system up to secondary school is to make children aware of general facts about the world and to develop some basic skills such as the famous three Rs. This was, perhaps, the intention of the British too when they introduced school education in India. The idea must have been that these children could be of some use to them when they grow up. After independence, it almost looks like we have not really looked into it or changed school education to suit our requirements. Undoubtedly, we have made changes to the curriculum, but that is about all.

Over the years, SSLC became an important stage in education and the examination acquired great importance -- much greater than it should have, in my opinion. Another change that happened was that the emphasis in schools shifted gradually from learning to scoring marks. Though marks are counted as an index of the knowledge acquired by children, it has now ceased to be so. It is rather common to see people who have passed out from some course with high marks, but incapable of making use of the knowledge they have supposedly acquired. I am sure that most people who have tried to employ someone to do a job would have faced this situation. Scoring in examinations has now become a skill different from what they are supposed to acquire from a course. As a consequence, we often find that someone who has learned something out of personal interest knows the subject better than someone who has passed out of a course in the subject. This is a tragedy that makes it necessary for any employer to conduct his own tests for candidates from among whom one has to be selected. And this makes the marks scored in the course irrelevant.

Another change is that parents, teachers and school authorities consider the marks scored by their children to be a matter of pride and something to be talked about. This is putting a lot of pressure on children, almost from their LKG class. Almost every child is expected to score the highest in class. Many children more or less loose their childhood and are worn out by the time they reach high school classes. Then comes the spectre of the SSLC examination. And this drives a few children to suicide every year and must be causing severe mental stress to many others. I am sure that this is reflected in their later lives.

It is in this context that Kapil Sibal and M.A. Baby are talking of doing away with the SSLC examination. In any case, most of the children only memorise the answers to questions, and that is what the teachers also tell them to do. So if the question is orded differently, children cannot answer it, which means that they have not absorbed the essence of the matter. What they have learned is only to apply certain methods mechanically.

And the examination system is far from perfect. Testing a child in two hours or so for what he has studied in ten years is, to say the least, a very unreasonable test. The way the scoring is done also has a number of problems. But, eventually, a student who has not scored good marks gets branded as "poor" or "useless", probably strongly affecting him/her mentally. Added to all this, many, if not most, teachers have hardly any clear concept on most subjects. But the children are taught by different teachers and some of them may be really good. His/her students may perform well in the examination. But the students of other teachers suffer. Many children, for instance, fare badly in mathematics because their teachers also don't have a clue about the subject.

What all this shows is that we have a system that is far from ideal. The teachers range from the very good to the real bad. Children learn only to memorise sentences most of the time so that they never really understand any subject. And, finally, the children are tested in two hours for what they studied, in effect, for ten years. Society puts a lot of pressure on the children to do well in the examinations, but the answer sheets are valued by different people and the marks are not adjusted to the subjective factors in the evaluation. But the child finally has to suffer for the marks (s)he has scored. And some of them succumb to the pressure and decide to end their life.

I could go on writing about the problems in our education system, but this is already rather long. So, let me conclude. I think society as a whole is responsible for making the SSLC examination and the marks scored for it so very important, and for putting so much pressure on children. As a consequence, the education system just creates people who cannot think independently or logically, or come up with innovative ideas. I think our education system is closely intertwined with our society (as in any society) that our social problems also are reflected there. I don't know how anyone can solve the problems in education without sorting out corresponding problems in society. For instance, where can we get good teachers with good understanding of the subject to teach in all the schools in the state? How do we get teachers to evaluate answer papers as objectively as possible?

I think the decision to wind up the SSLC examination is an attempt to remove some of the heavy burden placed on children, though I am not sure that is the best solution. But, to that extent, I am happy. Education should not become a burden to children. It should be enjoyable. On the other hand, every one should become willing to learn throughout their lives (and this will be needed in the world of the future). People should retain the willingness to learn new things even late into their lives, and formal education should be a means for introducing basic knowledge and learning and thinking skills -- things that our current education system do not impart.

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