Sunday, 23 August 2015

Are Written Annual Board Exams Good or Bad?

A familiar grouse amongst students and parents alike is that you can’t assess what a student has learned throughout the whole year in a three hour written examination! What if the student fell ill, or was in a bad state of mind, wouldn’t this affect the student’s performance in the written exam? For others, the very idea of a written examination is effete, obsolete and outdated in times when word-processing is the norm! Come on, we are talking about building up 21st century skills, so how does a written board exam fit into the scheme of things? “Sir, can’t you send us these observations by e-mail, this is too much of writing, we are tired!”- all for half to one page of written matter!
But then, let us pause and review the things that went on well and things that went on not so well since the CBSE brought in drastic and radical changes overnight in the system of education from grade one to grade ten, six years of confusion, eye-wash and a drastic deterioration of the academic standards of students and teachers! First and foremost, the “no fail policy”- much appreciated initially by parents who spoke about the stress of preparing for term papers, today a large number of parents advocate written exams and stricter norms regarding promotion of wards to the next class. Today, statistical research has shown that very few  of the students at the elementary level have  grade-specific skills in languages, both Hindi and English, and basic Mathematics. These students are presently passed on, or promoted to the next grade under the ‘no fail’ increasing the learning gaps with each year that passes!
The introduction of the Comprehensive Continuous Evaluation brought a sigh of relief to teachers and students and parents alike. Teachers were happy that they would not have to prepare regular term papers and check them, students were happy that they would not have to study hard for regular term papers, and parents were relieved that they would not have to pay exorbitant amounts to the neighbourhood aunty who gave  tuitions in all subjects from grade one to grade ten! A few years into CCE, however exposed the fallacy of such wishful thinking, for under the CCE, teachers had to prepare regular assessments under the system of “Formative Assessments” which included group activities, projects, and near about any kind of assessment that would help trace the “Formative Cognitive Growth” of the   learner. Students who had to prepare on regular intervals for term papers now had to prepare continuously without break. Parents who bothered about looking into the notebooks of their children just a few days before exams now now had to on their feet, running to the market to buy models and projects before the impossible deadline given by the teachers.    The immense scope and possibilities under CCE assessment strategies meant that teachers began devising their own activities, some of which so outrageously impractical since they were not backed up by a robust rubric. Some of the projects/activities were so ambitious that they ended up leaving the students and teachers confused about what they were being tested on, or what they were really testing. The end result of the CCE was that there were no standardised testing procedures. Also, the group activities did not cater to differential learning, thus a group presentation would depend on the probably the leader of the group who would do all the work, research, and drafting the presentation, while the other members would simply stand in a group while their leaded made the presentation. Thus if the teacher gave a perfect ten on ten, then it should have been more about awarding the single leader of the group who did all the work than the rest of the group members, literally hangers on. What happens in reality is that the perfect ten on ten is given to all the members of the group irrespective of the amount of work they might have put in – something that questions the very validity of the activity!
The next favoured assessment tool under CCE is the project. Topics are given to students and then they are told to prepare a written essay on the topic. Students then enter key words on the Google search bar, and lo and behold, the magic of the internet is that it spews out a plethora of websites on the topics chosen by the student. A few students might cite sources but most don’t even know about plagiarism. Matter is word processed, a few pleasing sketches are made on the cover pages,  and then the neatly spiral bound booklet is presented with a flourish to the teacher. The teacher is impressed by the presentation and the promptness of the student in presenting the project well in time and he gives the student a ten on ten! The same goes for models. Topic is given, the student then talks to the neighbourhood aunty who can prepare any model or a project paper for a reasonable amount of money. The topic is given to her and then after a few days, a gleaming colourful model is done, all ready to be presented to the teacher. The teacher looks at the model, gets impressed by the quality of workmanship, and awards the student a ten on ten!
Things become bad when the student “passes high school” that is grade ten with a ten CGPA and then seeks admission in another school, or then decides to get into one of the more popular streams, that is Science stream with Engineering based subjects, including Maths, Physics and Chemistry. The principal of a Govt. Aided school in Roop Nagar where I once served, lamented that even students with a 10 CGPA who came from other schools for admission in the science stream at the grade eleventh level failed to clear the exams and thus had to be either detained at the grade eleven level or worse had to seek admission somewhere else. These were by all means students who had been through the rigours of the Continuous Assessment System which had made the process of learning a cake-walk, the students had plagiarised liberally from the net, gotten models made from a shop and had ended up with a 10 CGPA! Ironically enough, a 10 CGPA is not a valid indicator of student learning, capability or even ability to take up a particular stream! Probably the only good thing about CCE or CCA is its continuity rather than the tools!
Formative assessments would  been wonderful and more effective if the tools were standardised across grades, and they came with standardised rubrics. Also, if there was a more subjective from of assessment, an assessment that could do away with using the subject teacher himself/herself as the examiner. Assessments other than written ones, (projects, group activities, research papers and presentations) can be effective only in classes where the students’ strength does not exceed twenty-five students. In situations where class strength goes up to seventy students, we might as well forget about any other form of assessment  than the written one. What might work in ideal situations where the student teacher ratio is 20-1, will not work in any other situation such as those found in Government schools. Formative assessments other than the written kind are also highly dependent on Information Technology and they require teachers to have more than a basic Information Technology skills. In a country where the fruits of Information Technology is yet to reach many schools and where even now only a few teachers have good IT skills, it is doubtful if formative assessments can be accurately recorded.
The question of whether written board exams are good or bad however is difficult to answer, it is like being forced to choose between two necessary evils and deciding which is less harmful. Whether one should trust the probably fudged ten CGPA of a student passing out of the tenth grade, or the 95 % marks that a student gets in four subjects in the grade twelve board exams is for the reader to decide! The crux of the matter is whether our assessments are valid enough, whether they test actual learning and thereby indicate  capability is yet to be established. It is a known fact that even H.J.Eysenck’s  battery of tests are only indicative of what they are supposed to measure, that is I.Q. and not definitive indicators of intelligence. Even they can be challenged. The fact of the matter is that no single test is accurate enough whether it is formative or summative, and it is only after the learner has been subjected to a large number of tests and the average of all these tests is calculated that we might arrive at a more definitive score that indicates that significant learning has indeed taken place! However, it is not practical nor healthy for the learner to undergo too many tests since then, there would be less of teaching and learning taking place in the class room. There needs to be a proper balance between the teaching – learning process and assessments.What the percentage should be between actual teaching and assessments needs to be studied, the fact of the matter is that these days, there seem to be more continuous assessments taking place till grade ten than actual teaching. As a result of being used to a  reduced time for instruction as opposed to an increased time for assessment, students when they go to grade eleven find it difficult to cope with a system of education that is  all of a sudden  more about  formal instruction, written summative assessments than the fun to do formative assessments of the past grade.
I have personally come across students with a good ten CGPA in English struggling with sentence structures, and skills of expression when it comes to writing extended articles, speeches and debates in grade twelve. These students who have exceptional skills in spoken English however struggle when it comes to appearing for a written exam. One of the favourite requests from my students is to send them notes on e-mail, they will not, rather can not take down notes because they have not done enough writing in the lower grades, what with the focus being on group tasks, projects,  and other formatives that did not require much writing. The reader might ask me, so  what do such skills have to do with assessments? My answer is that written skills are an important part of assessments and they will continue to be till at least we stop witting entirely and instead use some kind of an input devise; till then, our assessments will continue to focus on the written component of assessments.
Till we come up with a better alternative to the formative assessments in high school grades eight to ten and the summative assessment in grade eleven and twelve, we will somehow have to do with a system of assessment that will take up the best of both, it should be standardized, conducted by an external agency, not the subject teacher, and it should be conducted at more regular intervals. My suggestion is for board exams to be re-introduced on these lines at the grade ten level, although these should  not be annual, rather, they should be biannual exams so that the average scores of the two would be better indicators of student learning. Also formatives should be reduced if not removed entirely from grade ten. In education boards should spend more time in improving the quality of formative assessments and these should take place only in primary classes, that is up to grade five or six. From grade seven onwards, students should focus on regular  summative assessments, like we had a few years ago, before the introduction of CCE/CCA. For grade twelve, the single annual summative board exam should stay although an additional weight age should be given to internal assessments in the form of an average of all the home exams or tests taking place throughout the academic session. The average of internal assessments should be to the tune of 25 % of the annual written board exam. A similar  system is already being followed in subjects that have a practical component like Physical Education, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Metaphors in Selma Lagerlof's The Rattrap

The short story, the Rat Trap by Selma Lagerlof has a few rather distinct metaphors used by the protagonist, the pedlar, to describe the world in which he lives. He uses these metaphors to describe the world he lives in; situations he falls into from time to time. The most important metaphor is the metaphor of the rattrap, which incidentally also forms the title of the lesson. Another powerful metaphor is the forest in which he loses himself.The third metaphor is the metaphor of the ‘lion’s den’ while the fourth metaphor is the letter that the pedlar addresses to Edla at the end.

It is interesting to see how Selma Lagerlof uses  metaphors in this story to create interest in the reader and to help convey the message that the essential goodness in a human being can be awakened through understanding and love. These metaphors are integral to the allegorical genre, fables and fairytales such as which this lesson happens to be. The author begins the story like a fairytale, and like a fairy tale, the lesson delivers a specific message. The metaphors used by Selma are like cues and symbols that deliver a message in the form of images, whether it is the image of the rattrap, the dense forest or even the lion’s den! Metaphors are images that structure our thinking.Metaphorical thinking underlies the way we make sense of the world conceptually. It governs how we think and how we talk about our day-to-day lives. (Libby Brooks, 2015). So then, it is important that we go deeper into the lesson and pick up each metaphor to analyse the meanings and how it impacts the message of the story.

1.The Rat trap: It shouldn’t be surprising that even a peddler can fall into a philosophical line of thought when it comes to thinking of the world in terms of images. He had naturally been thinking of  his rattraps when suddenly he was struck by the idea that the whole world…was nothing but a rattrap. It had never existed for any other purpose than to set baits for people. (The Rattrap) This is an extreme view of the world, rather pessimistic, negative, and vitiated in nature. Moreover, even ordinary things like joys, shelter and food, heat and clothing are baits to tempt hapless victims into the rattrap. Apparently everything that belongs to the material world,  even basic necessities are baits! All the successful people he has known are victims of the rattrap! The author, however explains that this extreme view of the world was in fact his way of getting back at a world that had never been good to him. It was his way of taking revenge on a world that had slighted him, it was his way of passing time while plodding along. That the peddler should see the world as a rattrap shows how vitiated, revengeful, and vindictive the peddler is, and it is in this area that Selma Lagerlof wants to show a transformation taking place in him. In the allegory of the rattrap, Selma wants to show how good people like the old crofter, the ironmaster and Edla, all agents change, are able to bring about a change in the peddler.

2. The Woods: The peddler dares not  walk on the public highways after stealing the thirty Kroner lest he should be arrested for the crime, so he takes to the woods. In the beginning he had no problems, but then later in the day, things became worse, for it was a big and confusing forest which he had gotten into. He tried, to be sure, to walk in a definite direction, but the paths twisted back and forth (The Rattrap) and it was then that he realised that he had become trapped in a forest which was an impenetrable prison from which he could never escape.(The Rattrap) The woods too can be seen as a metaphor for the circumstances that the peddler has fallen into, all because of stealing the thirty Kroner from the old crofter. The irony of the situation is that in the forest, the peddler gets a taste of his own medicine! Why on earth did he think so poorly of the world, even if he was not that successful as an entrepreneur?  One could end the lesson at this point with the peddler dying because of his crime - he is a recipient of “Divine Justice, or Divine Retribution”. This ending however, would defeat the very purpose of the allegory - for more is yet to come, and it is the sound of the hammer strokes of the Ramsjo Ironworks that give him hope and draws him to the relative warmth of the factory. The moral ? Well, I guess it would be that there is always a way out of thick soup, and that one should not lose hope.

3. The Lion’s Den: Later when accosted by the Ironmaster as Nils Olof and not denying that he has made a mistake, believing that he would get a few Kroner, the peddler gets more than he had bargained for when the former invites him to the manor. No, I couldn’t think of it! … To go up to the manor house would be like throwing himself voluntarily into the lion’s den.(The Rattrap) The vagabond dimply does not want to go to the manor. What if someone recognises him for what he is - the petty thief who stole the thirty kroner?What if the Ironmaster sent for the sheriff to arrest him? No, the manor would be like a lion’s den! The metaphor of the Lion’s Den is however, at a slight variation from the metaphor of the rattrap because in the latter, you don’t have lions prowling in search of easy prey. The lion’s den is a den with a hungry lion waiting to tear you up!

4. The letter: The letter that the peddler addresses to Edla is a metaphor, a symbol that represents the transformation that has taken place in the peddler. He is no longer a tramp with 'tramp manners', he has become a man with the dignity and respect of a captain in the army. He is now 'Captain Von Stahle' and he makes it clear that the reason for this transformation is none other than Edla Wilmansson, a woman who gave him the respect accorded to a Captain in the Army. She treated him with dignity and as a result, he wants to reciprocate her kindness by redeeming himself. He would have been trapped in a rattrap with no hope of escape if Edla had not intervened on his behalf! It is a gift from rattrap who has escaped from a rattrap and he wants to say 'Thank you' to his rescuer!

It is clear from the above analysis that the metaphors employed by Selma Lagerlof vary from circumstance to circumstance. However, the metaphors are all a slight variation of the central metaphor in the lesson. The choice of metaphors made by the peddler represent his mindset before the process of transformation was complete. The images and the metaphors that one creates about the world are highly dependent on one’s experiences. The peddler could think of the world as  a rattrap because he was closely associated with rattraps and could not think of anything else. Perhaps if he had been a seller of oranges, then he might have thought of the world as an orange!

1. Liibby Brooks. Metaphor map charts the images that structure our thinking. 30 June,2015,30 June 2015
2.Lagerlof, Selma et al. Flamingo text book for class XII (Core Course). New Delhi: NCERT, 2007

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Stamps from Ethiopia

The first thing that I remember about 1975 is that I started collecting stamps, the second is that the Emperor had been forcibly removed in  coup d'├ętat  by a group of people. My parents, my brother and I had been insulated from the goings on in the rest of the country because we were living in the backwaters of the country, Arbaminch, the town with forty springs way back south of the country. When the crash came, there was a kind of confusion, a kind of stillness just like the moment of calm that, I am told precedes the Tsunami or the thunder storm.
It is surprising that the regime was using a stamp commemorating the 20th Anniversary of  the Haile Selassie I Foundation way back in 1976 and a good two years after the Emperor had been removed.
The coup had taken place in 1974, but then it was probably in 1975 that the monarch was finally disposed off.The new regime continued using the old currency and  stamps that bore the image of the Emperor long after he had been removed from his throne.
The Logo in the middle of the star includes the hammer, sickle and sheave of wheat, symbols of the Socialist Philosophy of Dignity of Labour in an agrarian society. The stamp commemorated the fifth anniversary of the Socialist Revolution.
The resettlement of people from the North to other areas in the country was meant to quell dissidence and curb public unrest against the Socialist Regime with which they had nothing much to do!
Issued in the early eighties, this stamp was issued to commemorate the eleventh year of the revolution, but also presents a rather romantic image of the ubiquitous and much criticised forced resettlement of people from the North to places in the South and other places - reminiscent what was once practised in the Soviet Union.
In those days I knew very little about how to stick the stamps on the the stamp album which was in fact just a notebook! A few of those stamps exist in my collection even today, and the telltale marks of the gummed up strips of papers continue to exist. The year that I remember with stamps in mind is 1975, the year when everything changed, a new regime, a new philosophy, Karl Marks, Fredric Engels and Lenin were the new poster boys, the whole for me was in a state of turmoil and unrest, slogans resounding all around, "Down with Imperialism!" - "Long live the Proletariat!" and so on. The man running the country, Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam was projected as the protector of the revolution, attaining an almost godlike stature. The stamps post 1975 however rarely, if ever show the protector of the revolution in one corner with the right fist raised as if to drive home the challenge to American Capitalism. The stamps in my collection post the 1975 revolution don't show much about the changed philosophy although they do project the efforts of the common man, the proletariat in working towards his own emancipation, and perhaps the withering away of the state. The Socialist revolution in Ethiopia saw the rise of the cooperative society, and days when all the people of the town had to go to the farm to collect cotton or they had to go to the outskirts of the town to clear a part of the forest for cultivation. The socialist revolution taught everyone the dignity of labour!
Seen in the centre of the logo is the traditional single toothed plough drawn by oxen with the farmer pressing the tip into the earth. A typical stamp that was used  throughout the Socialist Regime depicts the ethos and philosophy of Socialism.
The period starting from 1975 and ending in 1989 was a period when I witnessed the effects of the Cold War. The political posturing of the Soviet Union and the United States of America was rather grandiose although sinister in nature, and Ethiopia was like small fry caught in between two giant sharks sharks circling around each-other playing mind games but not yet physically attacking each other! Of course I had left Ethiopia in 1985, although I did stay in close contact about developments in that country through my parents who stayed there till 1993. The falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the setbacks faced by the Soviet Armed forces in Afghanistan meant that the Soviet Union no longer felt supporting Ethiopia militarily viable. The dwindling resources and increasing boldness of the E.P.L.F.,T.P.L.F and dissent amongst the ruling apparatchik meant that Mengistu's hold was steadily growing weaker. The reforms that he brought into the parliament were too few and too late!
The 1982 World Cup Football matches however brought in a welcome break for Socialists, Imperialists, Capitalists, and Rebels alike. The months leading to the games saw many countries around the world printing stamps that depicted the games. Similarly the months after the World Cup continued printing stamps that glorified the game. It seemed after all that sports had brought in some form of sanity into the minds of the people although temporarily!
Issued in 1993, you will notice  in the stamp above that the common motifs of Socialist Philosophy are missing from this stamp, this is because there has been yet another change of regimes. With Mengistu fleeing the country and settling down at a ranch in Zimbabwe, Socialism came to an end.
By nineteen ninety two Ethiopia saw a yet another regime taking the role of running the country after Mengistu had fled the country. Comprising of educated people from the North, like Meles Zenawi, whom my parents had probably taught at a school in Adowa, the new Government also overlooked the session of Eritrea from the rest of Ethiopia. The Eritreans  had finally won the independence that they had been promised so often starting from the first world war on to the second world war . I guess if it had not been for “trouble in the North” then Mengistu would surely have continued for many more years!
A change of  regime and you can see yet another change in the design of the stamp shown above.
Stamps have always been a source of information for historians and scholars. One of the finest hobbies till a few years back, stamp-collecting has unfortunately been on its way out! There is little that Philatelists can do except to look after their existing collections and to write about them as much as possible. I have found this hobby to be most fulfilling and I have been at it since 1975. The oldest contemporary stamp that I remember collecting was issued in 1975. I have taken you through a journey of a country from 1975 to 1993, a good eighteen years in the past, a past that is most beautifully recorded in the stamps that I have  photographed for my valuable readers.
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