Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Searching for relevance in Education at the School level

The unfortunate fact is that today, little of what we teach in schools is relevant to the daily life of a student. This was a complaint made by a renowned educationist and philanthropist, Mr. Anil Virmani, chairman of the Dhanpatmal Virmani Education Trust and Management Society (a Trust under which I served for no less than seventeen years). Mr. Virmani’s pain was that  when he interviewed some of the science students of the school, it became apparent that they couldn’t explain the principles associated with the working of an electronic motor! Mr. Virmani, himself, a product of one of the prestigious IIT’s of India and an ex-student of the Doon Public school expressed grief that little of what we teach in schools today is really relevant to the everyday life of  students. His observation was that if we can’t build relevance in what we teach in schools today, then we might as well discard or put an end to such courses! If the working knowledge of a student who takes up science is limited to the bare working knowledge not even fit for a motor mechanic, then we might as well do a re-think of the viability of conducting such a course!
All this insight  was the result of my calling him up to request him  to reconsider the idea of  discontinuing the science stream in a school that has produced renowned doctors and engineers. The painful decision had been taken as a result of the poor performance of the students graduating from the school. During a period of five years only one female student had been able to get admission into medicine; none of the other students had really found their way into a good Engineering college. Somehow or the other, the teachers who taught science  in grade eleven and twelve had become complacent and when asked why their students were obsessed with tuitions, they replied that it was the norm for all  students in different schools! This response was perplexing and disturbing.  If what we are teaching in schools is not good enough and students need to go for tuitions, then it is clear that we are not doing a good enough job as teachers.
This brings me to the topic of relevance. If students taking up science are studying science merely for the sake of passing the board exams and not for preparing themselves for life ahead, then according to Mr Virmani we might as well re-consider the need to continue such courses. He spoke to me and said, “where is the need of teaching a subject which will have no relevance two years after the student has graduated from school?” I couldn’t help but agree with him! What he said to me forced me to re-consider his decision  to close the science stream in the school.
From the conversation that I had with my former employer, it became very clear to me that there is a great need to create relevance in what we teach in schools, we need to equip students for life, develop, as it is twenty-first century skills in students! The unfortunate fact is that curriculum framers and teachers have not as yet built contextual relevance in what they teach. If I, as a teacher of English have not been able to convince students about the relevance of reading literature or for that effect the  importance of sticking to conventions, formats and the need to communicate information logically and rationally, in higher order writing skills, then I have failed as a teacher! The greatest need of the hour is to be able to build relevance and value in what is being taught in class. It is true that the CBSE Board has come a long way in making the syllabus more relevant to everyday life, what with the introduction of HOTS based questions and the introduction of case studies in Commerce and other subjects, but then the fact is that we are all partners in building a culture of crammers and rote memorisers who might achieve distinctions in the board exams but forget what they have learned in a matter of days.
Where then, is the relevance of teaching students the laws of gravity, or centripetal and centrifugal force if we can’t tell them about why we need to slow down the speed of the vehicle before entering a tight turn! Similarly where is the relevance of teaching a student that a letter to the editor is aimed at connecting to a wider reader base than the authorities themselves, or that a poster is meant to convey a maximum of information in a most effective manner? If a student who graduates from school is not able to explain the principles behind the working of an electric motor, or if the same student is not able to explain the rationale behind the elements of a good article, then we might as well go back to the drawing board and reframe our pedagogy and syllabus! What about the concept of dominant and recessive traits in Biology, what is the point of teaching the concept of genetics if the student is not able to figure out why he or she has an RH negative blood group while the parents have an RH positive blood group? If the purpose of teaching Physics or Chemistry is merely to score marks in the board exams, then why not tell the student to take up some other subject, say for example Political Science, or History, (not that these subjects are not good enough) these subjects if studied well enough can reward the student with good enough marks!
This brings me to the question of why one should study Physics or Chemistry or for that effect  Biology, if one is to pursue a career in marketing or any other field not related to the stream of learning taken up by the student at the school level! A large number of science students take up Economics in college and they are given preference over even those who have studied the subject at the school level. Why, then does this switch in stream take place post school when the student joins college? Why did the student study science if he had to take up  Economics at the college level? One of the reasons perhaps is that colleges offering the Economics course favour students who have pursued science at the school level because they probably feel that science students are more rational and level headed than students who have followed the Commerce stream! I don’t in any case want to disparage students of science who want to take up Economics at the college level, but the fact of the matter is that they have not apparently understood the relevance of studying science if they are not able to follow it up in further studies. If the purpose of studying chemical reactions and vectors was in any way to pave the way for an understanding of micro economics then I guess the there is a lot of twisted logic behind taking up a stream just for the sake of gaining an added advantage in getting admissions to a course of study in no way associated with what they have learned in school.
Why then, should a school offer the science stream to students if it were not for preparing students for a career in dynamics or bio-technology? If students who offer science are not able to become doctors or engineers, then what a waste it is to have spent all that time in the lab doing salt analyses and titrations. What about  all those dissections of flowers and earthworms? How would they have helped a student understand the  power of market forces? If relevance is the prime reason behind students taking up a particular stream, then I am sorry to say that we have surely failed in convincing our students to stick to the particular stream. There is no purpose in forcing a student to follow a particular stream unless we make him or her realise  the relevance of that particular stream to his or her everyday life.
So then the question is, should we allow the school to continue with a stream that doesn’t develop skills that equip students for a particular career in life? Why spend so much time and money on subjects that will be dropped at the college level? Why have a particular stream if it doesn’t equip students for a subject specific career in life? Mr Vrimani’s pain is evident in the context of the fact that the purpose of studying science is defeated if students are not able to take up courses and thereafter careers that are built up on subjects they have studied in school.

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