The race to better learning

2 Jan

It comes as no surprise to anyone that for all the emphasis on education, India fares badly in the international comparison of learning. This was the first time India participated and this was a pilot that just included two states. The study conducted by the OECD, called PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), measures student achievement across nations and subject areas.

Our pedagogies and entire school systems are designed to feed a specific type of learning- generically known as learning by rote. We teach and learn for the assessment. And assessments, if they are to be standardized and defensible are often merely linear tests of information, not knowledge.

The traditional education system is often berated for belonging to the industrial age – where a standard product needs to be created, using standardized processes, where products move along an assembly line, from one level of preparedness to the next. Till finally, the product is ready for the job market. This is clearly a utilitarian view of education, where we need to feed the machinery of the present with efficiency, and for efficiency.

The meaning of the word learning has been debated and measured in literature largely via assessments. And yet, the purpose of education is often stated in more lofty terms – growth, progress, development; thought and society among others. Yet, our assessments do not reflect the stated purpose of education. While we practice and acknowledge that our teaching is geared to our assessments, and we also measure individual and systemic success via the same assessments, it becomes incumbent on us to focus our efforts on designing those assessments well.

Learning for each of us means different things. For some it means proficiency in the classic 3 R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic. For others it is reflected in the ability to pass exams, or, in the number and range of competitions won. for some, it is the ability to carry an argument forward, to a cohesive end that demonstrates learning, while for people like me, it is clearly the ability to make good decisions that signifies that good learning has taken place. For some, learning is about good values- both at work and as a human being.

These of course are the possible results of good learning – end games as it were. What about the processes that deliver such learning? Does a teacher with forty minutes and forty students have time to do more than download the essentials of the ’syllabus’? The answer to that does depend upon the skill of the teacher-whether acquired by training or experience. The great teachers that we still remember were able to weave music and morality into their lessons. Some enforced certain values, others taught us various disciplines. The rest, sadly were a waste of time, though they did help us pass our exams.

The best teachers fostered curiosity while showing us how to feed that curiosity. This takes a lot of conscious, customized effort from the teachers. The learning process, where a child is given the tools to find their way to the answer, is laborious and time consuming. If teachers were to traverse this path, there is no way that the children would be able to cram in as much (forgettable) information as they do currently. Inevitably, the short cut to results wins. It serves all parties well in the short term. The teachers work less, and in standardized ways. The students cover more material and can prove it in exams. School heads and administration can prove regular smooth processes that work, and parents see volumes of achievement. In the short term, there seems to be no choice but this- traditional learning by rote. The choice that must be made is between the short cut to results and the joy of learning. It is up to each school, each teacher to answer to their conscience.

In a perfect world, the syllabus should be seen just as a launching pad into learning. Where questions are directed, curiosity facilitated and discovery joyous. The proof of such learning is not just via examinations- which must go beyond information regurgitation. True learning is about absorbing more than information, about more than mere analysis of such information and about more than receiving knowledge. True learning is an inheritance that we receive from those that came before us that shows us how to create knowledge for our own times. It goes beyond knowing and proving what was (via exams). Learning is the process of structured, supported growth.

In this perfect world, proof becomes unnecessary. Yet, reality shows us classrooms that are broken down, teachers who do not bother to teach, or often, not even show up. In such a world, where teachers themselves have shamed themselves and their brethren by association, how can we not seek proof and measures of progress at every step? The PISA does just that – seeks proof of learning. In a way, this feeds the same assessment oriented teaching and learning that we identified as efficient. While the PISA attempts to track learning standards across the world, and does it by designing questions that fit globally acceptable meanings of the word ‘learning’. And, the little thought remains – do tests like the PISA start off another race to better learning?

This was published here on December 21, 2011

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