Thursday, 6 June 2013

Developing 21st Century Skills in Students Studying in Indian Schools

The Indian educational system has undergone a lot of change since the time when the Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation was introduced and Board Exams at the CBSE class tenth level underwent a radical transformation. Evaluation at the class ninth and tenth grade levels has now been broken up into the Scholastic Content,and the Co-Scholastic   components. The Scholastic learning is assessed through the Formative Assessments and the Summative Assessments. Assessment Tools  are based on various activities like, role playing, debates, poetry recitations, jam sessions…etc. Summative Assessments are done through the traditional paper and pen tests. Co-Scholastic skills refer to the values that students have, they also refer to the students’ life-skills and observation of such behaviour is the main tool for assessing the quality of values that the student holds dear to himself. But then, a lot of confusion still abounds around the use of proper Formative Assessment tools. In many schools, students are assessed on the basis of projects given to them. In most cases it can be observed that the written projects are plagiarised, copied from the internet and have little or no original content reflecting the writer’s understanding of the topic. In other case where the project is not written and based on a working model, it would most probably have been purchased from the market! The very purpose of developing an understanding of various topics through a project based learning is defeated if it is not taken seriously by both students, teachers and parents! In the case of written projects in grades ninth to tenth, it is more often a case of misuse of twenty-first century skills if a student does research on the internet only to copy paste material for his project. But then in many cases, teachers have to deal with overcrowded classrooms in India, often amounting to about sixty to seventy students! In such cases where the teacher has to handle so many students, it wouldn’t be surprising if he or she turns a blind eye towards plagiarized material!
One very important question  for us as educators is whether we have done enough to develop twenty-first century skills for our students by bringing in a slew of changes in the way we assess our students at the grade nine to tenth levels? The answer is a rather vague ,  ‘Maybe.’ To make matters worse is the shift that the students undergo from this rather radical system of evaluation at the grades eighth to tenth level to the more traditional paper pen based system of evaluation at the grade eleventh to grade twelve levels. Moreover, the student on reaching grade eleven is told by his teacher that he has to build up his or her examination skills! The confused student is at a loss when he gets poor marks in his first term exams because of numerous grammatical errors, spelling errors, and a general inability to express himself properly, at least  in the English Language test. It seems as if there is a clash between the idea of developing twenty-first century skills in our students and developing exam skills!
It seems as if changes in the system of evaluation have not translated themselves into changes in Pedagogical skills in teachers who teach from grades eight to tenth. Teachers need to be trained to cater to the Experiential aspect of learning, they need to train more in making better and more effective lesson plans. The preparation of rubrics before each lesson, telling the students about the learning objectives and learning outcomes before each topic are some of the areas in which stress should be given! In a country where most of the teachers turn towards the profession at a late age after having failed to get through various competitions, it would be really hard to get them to have a passion for teaching! Unless and until we catch potential teachers at a young age, we will continue to have teachers who believe in the rote-memorisation style of learning and they encourage their students to mug up facts and figures! Teaching should be a first choice for successful teachers and not the second or third choice! Developing a patient approach towards the teaching-learning process, readiness to experiment with teaching methodologies, the realisation that students are better informed are all important ingredients of a good teacher!
After pedagogy and evaluation, the most important part of  any education is the syllabus. The CBSE has introduced some changes in the syllabus for all the subjects. The introduction of Novels in classes eighth to twelfth has been a positive step towards modernising a syllabus that was initially based only on rote memorisation. However, this is not enough as students still need to develop proper research skills in keeping with the need to develop twenty-first century skills! There is a great need to introduce  research as an important part of the syllabus at the grade eleven level in schools in India. Students who are exposed to the process of writing a research paper in school will have less problems when they have to write the same in college. My school decided to go ahead and introduce a research paper in class eleven English syllabus, and the results were highly encouraging! Some how it has been observed that the choice of reading lessons in class eleven and twelve need to be more contextually relevant. The CBSE has indeed removed a few lessons from the grade twelve syllabus for English, but then more needs to be done. Unfortunately, while the genres of poetry and prose  exist in the class twelfth syllabus, drama doesn’t even exist!
Somehow or the other, students at the grade eleven and grade twelve levels show a rather strong aversion towards exercises that invlove reading and writing. The desire for ticking answers in  multiple choice questions and the laziness to write full length Essay type answers at the grade eleventh and twelfth levels might be a fallout of the type of questions and type of evaluation they were used to in the previous grades, i.e., grades eight to ten. This issue then brings us to the importance of developing proper examination skills in students. The development of examination skills in students is yet another important aspect of a good education. While no doubt, answering multiple-choice type questions is an important skill, (what with it being a popular and important tool of evaluation in various entrance tests like JEE, GMAT, SAT, PMT…etc,) the more subjective skills of writing essay type answers, full length answers of two hundred or more words is even more important! The need of the day is to develop appropriate examinations skills in students so that they are comfortable with both the objective type multiple-choice questions favoured in entrance exams and the more subjective essay type questions. The Common Application form for admission to colleges in the United States of America instructs candidates to write an essay describing any community work done by them. This is because it is only through written essays that examiners are able to evaluate different attitudes and values such as honesty, and dedication. It is as if a written essay is a window into the thought processes of the candidate! For the English Language subject, Speaking is another important skill which might need to be developed further in schools in rural areas where an English speaking environment is difficult to find. Students get a lot of opportunities to speak till grade ten. In fact speaking in some form or the other is a favoured tool falling under the Formative Assessment category.
To understand where we stand today, we could take a look at the introduction to the Common Core State Standards for English Language& Literacy in History/ Science and Technical Subjects which states that:
The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects ('”the Standards”) are the culmination of an extended, broad-based effort to fulfil the charge issued by the states to create the next generation of K-12 standards in order to help ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy no later than the end of high school.
The Standards set requirements not only for English language arts (ELA) but also for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.Just as students must learn to read, write, speak, listen and use language effectively in a variety of content areas, so too must the Standards specify the literacy skills and understandings required for college and career readiness in multiple disciplines. Literacy standards for grade 6 and above are predicated on teachers of ELA, history/social studies,science, and technical subjects using their content area expertise to help students meet the particular challenges of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language in their respective fields.It is important to note that the 6-12 literacy standards in history/social studies, science and technical subjects are not meant to replace content standards in those areas but rather to supplement them.
A particular standard was included in the document only when the best available evidence indicated that its mastery was essential for college readiness in a twenty-first-century, globally competitive society. The Standards are intended to be a living work:as new and better evidence emerges,the Standards will be revised accordingly.(Introduction to the Common Core State Standards, Page 3 : June 2 2010)
If we are to take the Common Core State Standards as a benchmark for the the Indian system of Education then it becomes clear that we fall short in training our students in some twenty-first century skills. Few of our students who pass out of school are college ready, especially for colleges in the west. Similarly, few of our students who pass our of school are equipped with appropriate career skills! Students who would like to take up a career after passing out of school have to complete a Diploma or a Certificate course before being able to take up a job. One popular job option for students passing out of schools are those jobs in which students have a good communication skill both in speaking and writing. The jobs they could get after passing grade twelve could be jobs in call centres and B.P.Os. Unfortunately, as far as joining colleges abroad is concerned, students have to do their TOEFL or IELTS. We cannot however adopt all the suggestions in the C.C.S.S. as far as the English Language is concerned because English is taught as a second language in India, so in any case the standards set in the C.C.S.S. might be a level or two beyond the standard acceptable to our students. As far as numerical skills are concerned however, our standards are better than those of the C.C.S.S. in some areas!
Ultimately, twenty-first century skills refers to the development of various critical skills in students that go hand in hand with the use of technology. Twenty-first century skills refer to skills that display the ability to analyse, the ability to work towards problem solving, the ability to think out of the box, and the ability to use ideas from other sources in such a way that one's work cannot be accused of plagiarism. Yes, twenty-first century skills is about using technology effectively and collaboratively.

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