School education: what students say

Michel Danino

A recent all-India Survey sought to probe students’ minds on the quality of school education in our country.Presenting the findings

It is an open secret that India’s school system, a legacy of the colonial era, needs to be overhauled if it is to meet the needs of a modern and largely young nation. Yet students themselves have rarely been asked for their impressions, much less consulted on ways to improve the quality of education. To help fill this lacuna, the International Forum for India’s Heritage (IFIH) conducted an NCERT-sponsored Survey on Education for Standards 9-12; over 11,000 students were asked to answer 72 questions. We conducted the survey in English (66%) and seven Indian languages; students (40% of them girls) were drawn from 278 schools spread over 21 States; 85% of the students were from private schools, 81% from urban schools. To our knowledge, it is the first time that such a survey seeking to probe our school-going students’ minds has ever been conducted in India, a fact edifying enough in itself.

The questionnaire’s first part dealt with Indian culture and values, the second part with the students’ experience of other aspects of the educational system; while some questions were of the yes/no type, most required the students to spell out their thoughts and suggestions, which provided a substantial qualitative feedback. Results proved revealing at many levels.

Findings on culture in education
We first questioned students on aspects of Indian heritage: arts, science, festivals, traditional sports and games, literature, inspiring historical or mythical characters, yoga and spirituality. The results were striking: 91% of all students felt that they would benefit from learning elements of Indian culture. Among the aspects of Indian culture that students would like to learn, art comes first, followed by asanas and pranayama, physical games such as kabaddi, and meditation.

Coming to values, only 38% of the students felt that they were acquiring some values at school – an unflatteringly low proportion; 7% specifically stated they were acquiring no values at all, 11% gave intermediate replies, and 44% did not reply at all. As regards the values which students said they would most like to practise in their own lives, honesty came first followed by truthfulness, brotherhood and friendship, duty and dharma, reverence for / inspiration from one’s parents, self-perfection, courage and simplicity each, and finally non-violence. When asked which values they felt they had acquired from stimulating stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Panchatantra, etc., the categories and proportions were very similar, which reflects on the inspirational potential of such texts and stories when used as educational tools.

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In a study correlating 11 different questions and defining a five-grade scale, 83% of students showed a substantial degree of interest in Indian culture or in learning about it at school, denoting an eagerness for cultural education.

Analysing the variables, we found that Indian-language students value Indian culture (including yoga and meditation) markedly more than their English-medium counterparts. While Tamil-medium students are the most dissatisfied as regards the attention paid to Indian culture in their curriculum, students of Gujarati and Bengali mediums are those most interested in Indian culture; barring Hindi, English-medium students score the lowest. Overall, students of rural government schools showed far more interest in Indian culture, followed by their counterparts from private urban schools. Students of government urban schools seemed the least interested.

graph1 This is undoubtedly one major finding of this Survey: Indian culture has been kept out of sight of our children, and they are asking for it to be restored to them – a legitimate demand. When their British, French or German counterparts are imparted something of their country’s culture at school, it is baffling why Indian students should be denied access to Indian culture and the world-acclaimed values that it has nurtured for millennia.

Findings on the quality of the educational system
Other important aspects of the students’ experiences came to light:

  • Mother tongue vs. English: 47% of the students feel that the mother-tongue medium is the best to facilitate understanding (against 24% who favour English). This feeling is especially strong in government schools (63%), and among students studying in Bengali, Kannada, Tamil and Gujarati. Even among English-medium students, 40% favour the mother-tongue medium. This does appear to make a strong case for a mother-tongue medium of instruction.
  • Moreover, English-medium students find the examination system much more stressful than do Indian-language medium students; we showed that one contributory factor for the stress is the difficulty of following studies in English. One more negative aspect of the English medium.
  • Competition: Even though 64% of the students find competition beneficial, 43% feel that the examination system is stressful (the figure is probably much larger in reality).
  • Textbooks: 62% find the load of textbooks they are made to carry to school unnecessary and excessive. Strangely, despite countless complaints from educators on this score, out of sheer lethargy most schools continue with this cruel and wholly unnecessary practice; the medical consequences on the children’s spines are apparently none of their concern.
  • Role of parents: While the majority seem satisfied with the role of their parents in their education, 35% report being under pressure to get marks.
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  • Physical training: 70% of the students find physical training a pleasant change, but 31% of them find it insufficient. Most schools have some physical activity once a week, but many have it once a month or even less. This is clearly a great lacuna, and India’s poor performance at international sports events must certainly be traced to it. Medals apart, a wonderful opportunity to build the health and physical endurance of our children is thrown aside for imagined academic gains.
  • Eco-awareness: About half of the students report participating in the planting of saplings or cleanup programmes, but only 26% have been taken on visits to nature spots. 67% desire a green area in or around their school. This is another serious lacuna, when the growing generation is going to be exposed, more than ever, to critical environmental issues.
  • An elaborate study of a “satisfaction” pattern, correlating 15 different questions and drawing a five-grade scale, concluded that only 42% of all students could be said to be satisfied with the quality of school education (out of which 8% were “very satisfied”). Another 28% are average, 23% are dissatisfied and 8% very dissatisfied. Moreover, students of government schools, especially in urban areas, are more dissatisfied than those of private schools. Overall, Bengali-medium students rank as the least satisfied, followed by English-medium and Tamil-medium students. Taken together, these figures establish a deep undercurrent of dissatisfaction – one that our educationists and policy makers would do well to take into account.

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Remarks on Expression
Our studies of patterns highlighted a few important points:

  • The proportion of blank answers to challenging questions was generally high (21% over all questions, rising to 36% over the more challenging questions), suggesting a lack of habit of original thinking or expression. We feel that this is because the school system relies largely on mechanical methods of teaching and learning, and discourages students from articulating their own thoughts. This exposes another serious shortcoming of the present schooling system, which overall seems designed to produce machines rather than thinking beings.
  • Analysing the pattern of replies to the Survey’s more challenging questions, we found that students of government rural schools are the most capable of expressing their thoughts. Private urban school students come a distant second. This unexpected result calls for reflection, especially from those who swear by privatisation of education or who think that the urban milieu provides a better education than the rural one.
  • In terms of medium, the same study shows that students in Tamil and Gujarati are well ahead of others, including English-medium students, in the ability to articulate their thoughts.

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Conclusions
IFIH’s Survey highlighted the failure of the average school curriculum to meet the cultural needs of students, regardless of the school type or medium of instruction. This confirms long-standing observations by educationists that schooling in India imparts no meaningful cultural values to the students. In particular, English-medium students come out as the least interested in Indian culture; whatever the cause, this points to a systemic failure. Value-based education has long been viewed by educationists as supremely desirable, yet the average Indian school appears to be as far from this goal as ever.

To meet the students’ aspirations, therefore, it would be essential:

  • to reduce the pressure of examinations and competition, and to lighten the syllabus so as to make space for such disciplines;
  • to integrate Indian culture in the curriculum in an innovative manner, and also to encourage schools to conduct extra-curricular activities of a cultural nature;
  • to work out ways to reward students who excel in cultural disciplines.

The above can only be done if deeper reforms are envisaged. In fact, the students themselves have come up with valuable suggestions for change:

  • Reduction of the syllabus, in order to make room for quality.
  • A less mechanical pedagogy: many complained in strong terms about teaching methods which, they felt, brought no stimulation to thinking. Students also asked for teachers to have human qualities such as patience, understanding, cheerfulness, etc.
  • A practical-oriented pedagogy: there was a consistent demand for a more practical, less bookish or theoretical orientation unrelated to the student’s life and environment; some asked for audio-visual material, computers, more sports and physical activities, visits to places, industries, nature spots, etc.
  • Examinations: 24% of students suggested either doing away with exams altogether, replacing them with daily evaluation, or making them more flexible in terms of subjects and timing; exams should test the child’s real talent and understanding, including practicals, not merely his or her capacity to “mug up” the textbook. This seems to be the key to all other changes one may envisage in the educational system.

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Despite some limitations, this Survey has highlighted important areas where school education has failed in its mission to equip a student to face life. It also shows the falsity of the still widespread notion that school education can be designed and imposed without the active participation of the students. In any effort to make those twelve years of schooling a more fulfilling period in a child’s life, students should not be seen as passive recipients. Their voice is a genuine one and deserves to be heard. They should be accepted as active participants in their own education.

The author is convener of the International Forum for India’s Heritage (www.ifih.org). He can be contacted at michel_danino@yahoo.com.

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