Saturday, October 05, 2013

Be A you really have a choice?

Data 1: The second goal in India's Millenium Goals for 2015 states, "Achieve Universal Primary Education". The UNDP, India site ( proclaims, "India is on-track and in some cases, ahead of targets that relate to universalizing primary education in India. Gross Enrolment Rates for both girls and boys in 2006-07 crossed 100 percent."

The data point looks quite encouraging. Yet, when you walk to any surrounding areas in your city, you will inevitably find children working or idling around when they should have been a part of the statistics UNDP, India mentions.

I pass by a temporary jhuggi colony along my way to office everyday. This colony has mostly labourers employed in the burgeoning Indore city landscape that is turning it into a concrete jungle to be in line with the other developed cities. Like any other similar habitation in any other city in India, this too boasts of children lining up the streets for their daily chores. On both ends of this street are located two of the most populous and prominent schools of the city. With buses and cars ferrying the privileged and more fortunate children into these two schools and many more from the residential areas nearby, you can't help but notice the urchins looking wistfully at their could-be childhood.

Where are we going wrong? Are the researchers and statisticians ignoring the vast populace that migrates in search of work? Not to mention the Chotus and Bahadurs who you meet at any chai shop!

Data 2: The Central Teacher Eligibility Test (CTET) conducted in July 2013 results that were released on 2-Sep show an overall pass percentage of 11% (a commendable jump from less than 1% in the last test conducted six months ago- partly due to a 1-hour increase in the test duration). More than 9 lakh teachers (and to-be-teachers) wrote that test from across India. Similar State-TET results across India have similar pass figures to boast of!

The second data point indicates the poor "infrastructure" quality to realize the dream. If our schools wouldn't have good enough teachers, how would the parents feel secure about handing over their wards to the schools? With the firm belief that the TET is an evidence of minimum quality teaching standards, Beyond Teaching is trying its best to improve the success rates by providing help to the test-takers.

I went to my regular Istri-wallah one day and found his usually reticent children reading out aloud from some textbook. The clueless parents proudly proclaimed that the elder child, the son, went to DPS. The younger son and the eldest daughter went to the government school in the nearby "village". While the child was busy reading, the parents voiced their problem of not being able to afford a tuition for him. Without a secondary support in the form of a good tutor, the child might just drop out, as many of our national statistics would indicate.

While the government does its bit by implementing Right To Education (RTE) and the DPS Society does its own part by offering a low-cost model of education to its dependent employees, there seems to be a gap in making these children use these resources better.

How many of those who can read this article help young primary class students in their regular studies? I presume, each one of us! But why we don't do it is a question of need. Whose need is it? We should be happy contributing to the government treasury by paying our taxes and let the machinery take care of such issues, right?

Wrong! The social and macro picture rather goes on to show that it is our need that all children around us study, and do well in their lives. The only big opportunity for these children to do well later is when they are in school. Some of the obvious advantages to the society are fruitful usage of their free time, better understanding between different strata of children and, most importantly, an almost sure way of ensuring a diminishing crime rate.
My newest students!

I set out to correct it in my own small way, and offered free tuition to the child. Right after the first day, two more children joined in, one of them being our maid's son. I had to commit a 7-8 pm slot for the children, and have managed to stick to the schedule for most part. My younger daughter, who is in second grade and too young to understand the differences in learning styles, has started taking keen interest in their progress in their grade 3 work. I am certain that she will learn much more by actually teaching others, as most learning philosophies would confirm.

There are a few more benefits that I am now able to appreciate after a few weeks of being on the job. I found the children and their parents very much interested and obliged. It was hard to convince them that I was doing it for my own satisfaction, and not for money.

Initially, my young learners were quite shy to open up and speak out. But with some encouragement and reassurance, they have begun to come out on their own. I can now make small changes in the way they speak, behave and learn. My own skills as a teacher are improving and I am hoping this would help me teach my own daughters better!

One of the children studies in Hindi medium in a government school, and I am only too happy to be able to teach him in a language that was always close to my heart.

I would encourage you to take up one such assignment and give yourself a chance to teach. If you want a better tomorrow for your children and your own old age, you really don't have a choice!

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The real purpose of Assessments

In a scene from the 1996 hit movie, Agni Sakshi, Nana Patekar confronts Jackie Shroff in a rare face-off. Jackie, playing a rich (and good samaritan to Nana Patekar's estranged wife played by Manisha Koirala) belittles Nana with  a big difference between their status. Nana, in his nonchalant tone, responds with this gem, "Just because your car is bigger than mine, it doesn't make my car any smaller or bigger than it actually is"!

Somehow, this dialogue has stayed with me over all these years. And I have interpreted it in many different ways. The one big interpretation is that in its relevance to assessments in today's education world. I interpreted it as "What others achieve (or don't) doesn't make my achievements any bigger (or smaller) that they mean to me."

We need to understand assessment in its core and entirety. At its core, assessment is a means to self-improvement in two dimensions- progress over where I was and in the context of what I can be. In either context, it is a very personal event and can't have it's bearing on or from another person's assessment state. A 15-year old child, whose paintings adorn the school walls and are worthy of being displayed in an art exhibition in the central town hall, needs to be assessed on how much more he can stretch his imagination and mature in this subject. At the same time, a child, who is branded as "good-for-nothing" has to be assessed on his ability to find his true meaning in the context of his surroundings. He has to be guided in this quest pushing him gently into the realms of the unknown.

Assessment, in its entirety, encompasses the whole, not a part of an individual. In his seminal work on appraisals (in the corporate context), T.V.Rao captured the spirit of assessment by coining the term "360 degree appraisal". Although set in a different environment, it holds equal relevance to a school assessment situation. Modern educational setups try to capture an overall picture of a child's situation by getting observations from classmates and parents to present a more complete picture of the child.

Over the years, I have graduated to assessing myself in a very personal and introspective mode than from an outsider's perspective (typically, my bosses, family and subordinates). It is a much less stressful activity and much more contented. The obvious question, of course, remains that of its relevance and impact on the real world that I live in. The most glaring, and hard-hitting, event is the raise in salary or position that I get because of someone else's perceptions. I believe it is also an event to be incorporated into my own assessment model. It should become a way of understanding how much I can convey to others about my worth. At another level, it should also indicate the course I would like my life to take.

Assessment is an important and a most critical component of the life of every entity- from an individual learner to an organization going right up to a nation. Shying away from assessment is like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand. Methods of assessment and the actions taken can have such a very high impact on a society. A recent report by Pratham indicates the result of the No Fail policy in just two years of implementation. The reading and arithmetic levels, the two most critical performance indicators of a nation's young learners, dropped to alarming levels. This relates well to the way assessments are done, and even more importantly, the way the results are interpreted and implemented.

I am reminded of a recent post on Facebook about the experiment a Professor did in his class to explain the results of a communist versus a capitalist society. After they all agreed to settle for the average score of all students to be awarded to all students irrespective of individual performance, they found that within the year, the complete class had failed. Obviously, the top performers felt demotivated to work hard given that they would get a lower score. I didn't quite agree with the logic that since this system failed, the other one (that of extreme competition) would succeed. It never has either, given the ever-widening gap in the performance levels of students in any academic class.

Summing it up, I feel that conducting assessments is a very serious business, and should be entrusted to the right people instead of taking it as a middle- or end-of-the-term formality and, worse, as a criterion to pass a judgement over the learner's capabilities. Let the learner decide!