April 16, 2009

Educating Junior

Whoever drew this brilliant cartoon (do click on it) has my full sympathy ... and absolute understanding. Actually I'm not too sure it is a cartoon. It looks more like a page from my son's notebook. Or that of any of the thousands of 16-year olds in India.

I've been stewing all of this past year, not because of anything I have to do, but because my son was preparing for his Board exams this year. Now, if you're not from India, chances are that you won't know the sheer hell of this phase!

Last June, I checked out the papers and magazines to research what percentage was likely to guarantee an easy admission into the best colleges. Then I had to double-back and check which were considered the good colleges. It didn't help that he had no clue what he wanted to do with his life except play football and cricket ! Okay, so he's good at those, but a career built on them ... ?

After collecting paper cuttings, scraping every website on the subject, and compiling reams of statistics on colleges, courses and percentages, I realised that some of the good colleges were quoting a cut-off mark of 90% for Arts !
That meant if you get 89% (which is fantastic in my personal opinion) you don't need to even bother putting in an application?
And that was for the Arts stream which has always been considered the soft one... the one you could apply for if you're not particularly strong in academics. What would my son with his dreams of Science do?

Then started the marathon! Every day of the week had an allotted special tutorial class, sometimes in school, sometimes elsewhere.
He struggled, I cringed with guilt. This was not what I wanted for my child. I wanted him to enjoy his childhood.
But then I also want him to enjoy his adulthood too. I don't want him to feel held back at any point because a lack of a few measly marks prevent him from doing what he wants to do. What a cruel world we have built for our children!

Then it came to the portions allotted. If I could get my hands on the brainiac who sets the syllabus, I'm going to make them make a list of the times when a person is ever likely to use half the stuff they make the children learn.
How many times have you used logarithms after you left school? Or trignometry, for that matter ?
How many times have you used a topographical map of a place to find out what the main occupation of that place is likely to be?

I'll stand up and clap if they'll teach our children to survive the mean streets of Mumbai. Or teach them to really use their imagination and creative skills constructively.
But if they're trying to stuff the kids with a zillion never-to-be-used facts just to plump up the syllabus, I feel like throwing rotten tomatoes.

Now the major part of this Herculean labour is over; the books were learnt and the exams were written. Who knows what lies ahead?
But one thing I'm very sure of : if there was a task that could've made Hercules stumble, surely it would have been the attempt at modern education.


  1. I completely agree with you Sunita. Its ridiculous how our Indian system operates. Why cant kids actually make careers in football or cricket... if they are good at it.. Really? Why does everything have to be... who you know.. and who you are???

    Do you and I really remember half the stuff we studied as kids??

    My four year old kid, is extremely talented in different ways... but hates to study.. and being in an ICSE Syllabus school... they have 'sight words'... which means... she doesnt have to recognise the alphabet... but just the word... etc.. etc.. The school is only focussed on academics.. and how she does... at the end of the year. They dont care.. if she is good at arts or sports... or any other creative thing. Isnt that sad??

  2. Wow Sunita, Well said. Why I wonder when so many parents seem to feel this way, does our syllabus just get heavier and heavier? the kids are getting smarter and smarter? Or we put them through such a grind that they can go off and earn green bucks easily..? not so easy now . But that was the Indian middle class dream.

  3. Sigh! I just dropped off my crying three year old... at her school.:( You guys are right ... but you know at the nursery levels too most of the schools don't have the right mind set... skills and all that it takes to encourage the babies into the learning mediums ...talk about starting off on the wrong foot ... and when they are done with you ... those darn percentages are like the parting shove.WEll talk about happy chilhood.

  4. Great questions, Patricia. I think we need a different system altogether. And maybe we need a new mindset too... for the parents, especially.
    Sometimes the education board does come up with some good ideas but the way it is implemented leaves a lot to be desired.
    It is sad when the focus is only on what can be memorised. Over time it kills creativity. And a child's natural curiosity and ability to learn from his surroundings is buried under a mountain oftexts to be memorised.

  5. Exactly, Kallu ! Sometimes I wonder whether they get some kind of thrill out of constantly enlarging the scope of the syllabus. Dumping all that on children and saying "learn that" seems to be nothing short of child abuse to me.
    Children need to play, explore, have fun. And none of those feature in their lives today because their studies leave them no time for it.
    They have become old before outgrowing their baby teeth !

  6. Rajee, in a very convoluted way what you wrote lifted my spirits a bit. I know its very mean on my part but I thought "at least I'm almost done. Rajee's task is just beginning". Horrible of me, I know ... sorry !
    Fun... that is what's missing from school and education. I felt so bad to hear that kids are crying when going to school. Thats nothing new, I know. But I can't help thinking that if school were a more fun place, children would actually be eager to go there.

  7. It's a world-wide problem. It exhausts acdemically minded children and puts off the rest.

    Why don't parents do something about it? In part, I think, that by the time they've realised what's happening through the experiences of their own children, the children and their parents are moving on to a new phase in life (and to new problems too!) and in part because as adults we are still afraid, in a funny sort of way, of teachers. They are AUTHORITY! It's a hard thing to get beyond . . . especially for those parents whose children are being taught by the very same teachers who taught them.

    Esther's Boring Garden Blog

  8. Esther, you mean I'm not such a wimp after all? My son's school intimidates me.I really dont know why,though. And I need a really good reason before deciding to go in there.
    You're right about the 'doing something' part. I am not comfortable with being confrontational and by the time I realise that something really has to be done, the moment has passed and then I prefer to ignore it. Not the right approach, I know, but there are so many other things that need to be done that is fatiguing.

  9. It is a world problem...and I think here, in the U.S. the "No Child Left Behind" thing is so mucked up because it was developed by politicians...NOT educators.

    Schools and teachers are judged on how the kids do on the tests....but EVERYONE takes the test, whether they are recent immigrants (or temporary folks like we had in CT from the Puerto Ricans who flit back and forth), or severely mentally handicapped (yes, even the kids who are mainstreamed but can't even hold a pencil) "take" the test.

    We don't use this to decide what they are going to be, but similar tests determine who is going to get into what school. The maddening part is that I found an error on one of the tests (a preliminary test for the ACT, a college entry exam) on my daughter's test. How can someone who is refered to as a "she" be referring to a "father"???? I don't even think in same sex couples that they are refered to as the opposite gender.

  10. This blog has a lot of food for thought. Indeed, who'll use logs when data analysis software can do every calculation for you in a jiffy? But having been a scientist for decades, I do believe that learning trigonometry and topography and contour maps actually sharpen one's logical thinking process. Maybe, some quick trigonometrical thinking will help your son to score that all-important goal some day!

  11. Lisa, I think I have to read up on this "No child left behind" project. It sounds intriguing.
    About the error in the test, that would have been amusing if it werent so annoying!
    Hmmm... sometimes teachers are the least open to learning. One example : my daughter's previous school was having a fund-raiser and they asked me to help out. One of the senior English teachers was asked to prepare a letter appealing to the parents to donate generously. She drafted a very eloquent letter but the only problem was that it was in very high-flown prose but the majority of the parents she was appealing to were unfamiliar with the English language even at a basic level. I pointed out that maybe they would not understand what was being said. Her retort: they may not know the language but we have to show that we do !!!

  12. Shailaja, thanks so much for adding your comment here.
    About the goal... I hope it happens but I really doubt it! :)
    Maybe if the syllabus was lessened so that the fewer portions that they would then have to study are understood thoroughly. Now what is happening is a rushing through the syllabus like a river that has burst out of a dam. Just pushing everything which is ahead of it but no slow soaking in.
    Every school year I have noticed that the third or final term is rushed through because the teachers realise the have only so much time left and there is too much left to be covered. Every week sees 2 chapters or 2 new topics being completed in every subject. 2 hours is just not enough time to learn a new topic.
    I must add that I'm not recommending a 'dumbing down' of education. I believe that upto the Xth standard, what the children need is a basic education. And what they are being made to memorise ( I wont say 'taught') is a lot of stuff that they are not likely to ever use in their lives.
    Sharpening their thinking process is a wonderful aim but I doubt whether 16-year old minds, burdened with a whole lot of stuff from stachiometry to trignometry, are able to cut through the clutter to achieve that clear incisiveness.
    But then, I'm a dreamer and I see no sense in cluttering up their time and minds. Perhaps it takes a scientist to see the need for all these things :)

  13. what a thoughtful post!i have a 13year old kid,who is studying in US.it is not at all difficult or hard for him here.even after doing his homeworks,he gets enough free time.if we could get good parts from both here and india,it would have been an excellent solution.because,here,in 8th grade,there are kids who cannot read or write properly.the kids who do well,are given more opportunities and the kids who dont,are left with whatever they can handle.in short, there is no pressure on kids at all,who doesnt do that good in studies.i feel,with a little bit of pressure,more kids would do better.in india,the kids needs a little bit less pressure.where do we find the right schooling system?may be in a perfect world!
    that was an excellent post.thank you.i cant remember ever going through this pressure when i was studying!90% for arts???then what is the % to get science ???

  14. I walked a proverbial mile to a red-brick country school and studied the "3-R's" -- Readin' Writin' and Arithmetic.

    Nothing modern about it but it has served me well for the past 74 years.

  15. Thank you, Meera.
    Hmmm... I wish we could find a middle path too. Somewhere where a child will have ample time to play and grow while still not slipping up on the academic front. You're right, that would be in a perfect world!
    About the cut-off marks, the one I mentioned was what was announced by Xavier's College which has a tradition of excelling in the Arts subjects. I dont remember what their cut-off was for Science but at some other colleges it is 95 - 97% !

  16. Bravo, Abe!
    That is exactly what I mean, you dont necessarily need a whole lot of stuff shoved down your throat in the name of education. Teach them the basics and teach them well. Then let them choose what they want to explore further. Developing an interest in learning is much more important than being force-fed a mile-high stack of text-books, dont you think?

  17. Hey Sunita, I just happened to visit your blog and it's amazing.

    Well, as a child I got to do both academics and the extra curricular activities but once i got into the prep for board exams, even I didnt find time for anything else, I faced the same problem 10 years back and I made up my mind that I would not let my kids go through the same torture. But as you said, it is outside the norms to have a career in anything we consider a hobby. I think its time schools and parents taught the kids to think broadly and created more oppurtunities to be what they want to be.

  18. Hi Sampoorna! I think we are responsible to a great extent for the misery that our children go through in the name of education. We dont have to, of course, but at the back of our minds we always have this niggling fear that when he's grown up, Junior will turn around and ask why we were so casual about his education. I dont think I can take that guilt trip ! :P
    So what do we do? Maybe one way is to prepare them for other things too. Like you said, you were involved with extra-curricular activities too. that's great! And that gives an opening for so many opportunities too. I wish more parents would allow the children to follow their heart :)

  19. Sunita,
    We parents have our own version of hell in the US!
    We know that the system is ridiculous and that the "education" the poor child is getting is not going to prepare him or her for anything in life - if anything it often generates a hatred for academics - yet we are swept along in the wave of madness, because we are terrified that our children will get left out and denied life's opportunities.
    Good luck to your child - hope he is happy with whatever he does.

  20. Kamini, that really touched a chord. I can identify with that so well. If education is not preparing our children for life outside home and school, then what is its role exactly? What is the use of cramming their heads with one theory and formula after the other if they do not know how to apply that in real life situations ?

  21. I really enjoyed this article as I have debated this topic often with many friends here in the US. I left India as a teenager and moved to Canada and am now in the US. Having studied in various countries, I can tell you that Indian education is of high standard in terms of syllabus may be, but it doesn't help kids think at all. It doesn't recognize that different kids learn differently, something very well recognized here. Indian education is all memorization and regurgitation in the exams. I found that the NA way of teaching is much more interesting. Of course I know the Math level here is not as high but my kid is in advanced classes which challenges him, so there are choices here. My own brother's family moved from US to India and back again recently. The stories I heard of their plight in India was sad. The teachers were down right arrogant, rude and everything in between. My niece in UKG was yelled at by the teacher for not writing in cursive writing! It's a well known fact here that KG students don't have the dexterity to do that. Also, she was told to try and not write with her left hand! I don't want to go on and on but I certainly feel that kids in India have been subjected to so much competition and then unfair rules (reservation crap) that a whole new generation of stressed out kids/adults are bred. The "no child left behind" act in the US was a well intentioned program that was not well implemented.

  22. Rupa, we do put so much pressure on children here, don't we? It's so sad! Maybe thats why we see so many drop-outs in the villages and small-towns. Insead of making education compulsory for every child under-14, maybe they should make that education more interesting.
    Or maybe they could have different levels : the regular stream, and a simpler version. This would help the children to choose to learn according to their own capabilities. And it would stop the dropping-out.
    The man who helps me in my garden has a son the same age as my own. He and his wife have never gone to school and so can't help the boy in his studies. How do you think he copes? He stopped going to school and is looking for a job now. It's all so sad!