Ask any child what causes her the greatest anxiety at school or home and chances are that she will reply “Examinations”.  Teachers and parents, too, dread the exams and the various unit tests that punctuate the school year.  While most of us spend a large amount of time preparing for this event, very little has actually been done to change the way we look at this test.  For years the education community has been talking about child-centric education and learner-centered teaching.  However, the same community has traditionally ignored the vast potential of the various inputs that a child has at his or her disposal.  The television, video player and slide projector gather dust in the almirah;  library shelves remain stocked with unread classics;  the home PC has been given the dubious distinction of being merely a games-machine.  All these potential tools for learning have been disregarded as distractions from the job of preparing for exams.

 Existing Definitions

How has this situation come about?  In the traditional school some definitions are considered axioms and therefore unchangeable.  The curriculum is defined as the total learning activity that a child is consciously introduced to at school.  The syllabus consists of a written set of topics that a child must achieve, at least partially, before being considered competent. The textbook then becomes the benchmark for the teaching of the syllabus while the examination is the benchmark for achievement.  The exam, usually written, is an individual and formal means of measuring the success of the teaching.  The learner is always defined as someone “receiving” education and not as one questing for knowledge.  If we accept these definitions we will find it hard to integrate the new technology into our classrooms or to change the way we look at exams.

 

Society has produced a situation where it demands percentages and scores to decide who should get a job or who should get admission into a prestigious institution.  Teachers, faced with a time crunch, start ignoring the vast curriculum and concentrating on the examination which, as defined, is merely a part of the written syllabus.  Well-meaning parents, driven by the bug of competition, start drilling exercises to make sure their children perform well in the exams. 

 Curious Minds

And through all this there is the rebel student, aware of and waiting to touch the future, who is least interested in the dreams of her elders.  What happened to our proposed visit to the Museum?  Why can’t we watch a video film?  May we please have something other than LOGO on the computer?  Yesterday, on TV, we saw a documentary about the earthquake in Afghanistan, how can we find out about earthquakes?  How does a mobile phone work?  Questions such as these arise from our surroundings, our gadgets at home, our newspapers.  If we are to make education meaningful we  must not disregard the effect of the media.   Instead of bemoaning their distracting effect on the school-going child, adults may have to recognize and give due respect to the attractive qualities of such aids to learning.  For which we may have to reconsider how we conduct our classes and our examinations;  assessing how they learn rather than what they know.

 Shifting Focus

Schools usually project a visionary model of a well-rounded curriculum that includes an academic syllabus and a modest but necessary exam based wholly on that syllabus.  This is what is declared in the prospectus, but rarely followed in the classroom.  A more realistic though less desirable situation is one in which the curriculum has shrunk to the size of the syllabus.  Teachers concentrate on covering the syllabus and the exam becomes the focus of education.  In our ideal model the curriculum regains its position as the total learning experiences of the child and the syllabus is only a part of this learning process.  The exam, still necessary, now cuts across the curriculum to involve the students in practical problem solving and the application of knowledge in unfamiliar situations.  Let us see how this model, hitherto a dream in most classrooms, might eventually become feasible thanks to Information Technology.

 Computer prices today run a better risk of crashing than computers themselves. Heads of schools are not shy of investing at this level of insurance.  Budgets of city schools are pumped up by parents and ex-students who are seeing long term benefits in providing IT for the schools.  Even our time-honored method of levying a small charge on all the students for the “facility” is accepted in the general interest of the learners.  And this is all the more acceptable since many kids have their own family computers to play with at home.  Most learners are far more proficient on the machines than their teachers, they can afford more time on-line and they can bring their own software to the classroom.

 Motivating Media

While there are a few Indian software companies that advertise “syllabus-based” programs, most software deals creatively with concepts that cut across the prescribed text books and syllabus.  Also, the topic could be dealt with in a variety of ways by different publishers.  Learners get the opportunity to absorb information and expand their horizons; to bring new and exciting experiences to share with friends.   The curriculum becomes the focal point since the content that is available for learning cannot be limited to a text book.

 With the computer’s potential for randomizing tasks, automatically scoring inputs and providing a means of efficiently handling data, it is likely that it will become the center of much class activity.  Everything that is developing in the field of educational computing is designed to motivate.  Given an internet connection or a set of multimedia CDs a child is far more likely to spend quality time garnering information than finishing written exercises from “the book”.  They are dealing with new, live, updated information versus data from a text that is fast becoming obsolete.  Some textbook publishers may be unhappy but the wise ones have already brought their considerable expertise into the field of interactive educational software.

 Crossing Obstacles

With limited resources with which to “teach”, the traditional classroom is often the only answer:  a blackboard, chalk, a teacher’s desk, perhaps a platform, and a teacher.  On turning round one expects to see rows of neatly arranged faces, spotless uniforms, identical textbooks on identical tables.  If technology changes all that we would still have problems.  One major obstacle to implementing new ideas has always been the teachers.  On the whole teachers are not much inclined to in-service training, especially with a new technology that is seen as threatening.  It is a sobering prospect to imagine a class full of kids actually learning without being “told” by the teacher.  Furthermore, kids might produce outputs that the teacher may never have encountered and would be difficult to mark.  Worse, they may not be facing forward with simulated attention, but actively engaged in meaningful activities without the teacher. 

 But this is deliberately exaggerated.  Vast numbers of teachers would be only too glad to have a bunch of highly motivated learners  shaping their own futures. Good teachers would happily assume the new responsibility of finding new ways to assess the learning.  Individual or group projects, information gathered from Cds or the internet, cumulative evaluation of work done throughout the year — these could take the place of traditional exams.  The job markets are already sending new signals to us.  A person who knows a lot is less useful than one who can find and use information.  Teachers and parents who have accepted, adopted or adapted the new technology are in the driving seat.  With much experience behind them they are in a position to participate as well as guide the children in their care.  The change, however, will be challenging for teachers and parents alike. The Dream Teacher of this generation is a friend who participates in the child’s learning and not one who merely tells; a collaborator in the quest for knowledge;  the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage.  Then  even examinations could become fun.

 Leslie D’Gama

July 15, 1998