Groping in the dark tunnel of guides
by rote alone
AT the height of the controversy over NCERT reforms last year, a rabid reformist, liberated and emancipated lady school principal cited an experiment carried out on Class V students of a nursery school to condemn rote learning.
She said the students, huddled in a spacious hall, were asked the following question:
"An Army bus holds 36 soldiers. If 1,128 soldiers are to be transported to their training camp, how many buses would be needed?"
Seventy per cent of the students who took the test did the long division and did it correctly. The following are the answers the students gave to the questions "how many buses are needed?"
29% said... "31and remainder 12"; 18% said "31" and just 23% gave the correct answer- 32". About 30% of children played safe — they just did not, or could not, answer.
I discovered a strong case to plead for the rote learning system in her own argument. I cited the example of those 30% children who played safe and did not attempt or could not do the question. To drive home my point I narrated an episode, or a mishap, that happened with me 15 years ago when my kids were in nursery.
The school where my kids studied (one in Class V and the other in Class III) was pretty far off from our home and we had the school bus to pick them up. The bus, invariably took a zigzag route as it had to pick up several others on the way. Naturally it covered the 15-minute drive in an hour, picking and dropping children all over the city.
One unfortunate day the school principal rang us up in the afternoon to inform us that the bus driver has fallen ill and requested us to pick up the kids. Jittery wife phoned me in the office huffing and puffing ordering me to pick up the kids on my way back home for lunch. When I reached the school my kid’s bus mates said that they had already left for home. Shocked, I rushed back home frantically looking for them all the way. They hadn’t reached home.
Time passed by as we waited for them. By 4 pm our house was in turmoil with my aged mom and kid’s grandma sobbing in muffled voice in one room and my wife frantically ringing up all friends and neighbours. I then decided to inform the police and my wailing wife accompanied me to the nearby police station.
Just them my aged father came running to the police station with a bizarre look — a bewitching mix of shock and ecstasy. "Withdraw the FIR. The kids have arrived," he said. We rushed back home and found the kids with wearied look, sun-burnt faces, sweating profusely.
Asked for the delay, they said they had been walking all the way. The poor souls had, by rote learning, learnt the school-bus route — the long and circuitous one — and so they decided to walk it down.
They did not hire a
rickshaw because they didn’t have money and second because mom and
grandma had been cautioning them time and again not to go with
strangers. They walked 16 km to reach home. The following morning I
informed the school principal about the episode, who in turn patted
the kids for their courage during the school’s morning prayer
meeting, but teased them for not having learnt the shorter route which
was just a little over 4 km.
Groping in the dark tunnel of guides
IT all started when I was busy purchasing a book and a group of university students descended into the shop and asked for guides for Masters classes. I was perplexed. Guides at Masters level? On further inquiry, Mr Vishaal Arora, owner of the shop revealed that the sales of the guides had jacked up in recent years while those of texts had plummeted.
Guides on the papers of languages, Mathematics and Commerce were especially popular. It became essential to talk to the students for a few years back when I was pursuing my Masters there were no guides on the scene.
Rajesh Awla, a student pursuing Masters in languages explained: "Notes given by teachers are difficult and, frankly, many are not there because of missed lectures so the guides coupled with correspondence notes suffice for examination purposes."
Questioned about the availability of reference books in the library, Anita, another student declared. "They are ample but sitting in the library to make notes is tedious. It is nothing new. We have been consulting guides in college as well and they are pretty okay". "An average 50 per cent can be managed with guides at the Masters level", explained Vikram Singh, "which is respectable".
I decided to get to the root of the malady. Shikha, a BA-1 student explained: "The curriculum in colleges is entirely different from those in schools. When we take up guides we get a fair idea of the format, the required length of the answers and though 60 per cent is not enough which we manage to get through the guides, yet considering the availability of time and the vast syllabus they are not bad."
Maninder, another undergraduate explained: "The teachers do help us by giving us notes and we do read the textbooks, at least once, but with guides around things are much simpler as they are in the question, answer form."
Kamaljit questions: "What is wrong in consulting guides? Our teachers in school taught us from a guide. It was only during one of the sports meet where students from different schools converge that we came to know that the recommended books for boards were NCERT, otherwise we always thought the guides were the recommended ones."
Mrs Harjit Kaur, professor in a local college explains: "The guide culture has become all-pervading and has spread its tentacles in all streams of education and at all levels. It is entirely debasing for the development of intelligence of the child as the need to learn more disappears. The purpose of teaching languages is that the child should develop expression just as the purpose of maths is mental exercise. Both get lost in the tunnel of guides. Guides are successful because most children do graduation out of compulsion for a degree rather than a direction. If they had greater avenues then each would have chosen a course according to his choice and interest in it would have spurred them to learn more."
Yashpal, another professor of English, spoke of the despair of trying to teach Keats to children for whom English is a "foreign" language as their rural roots familiarise them with this language rather late. "For such children guides are the only way out."
Few pertinent questions spring up:
a) What is the purpose of our educational system? Getting decent marks? It is neither creating skilled individuals nor giving them a passport to lucrative jobs. The worst is that it is not even making them probe. A child who has come to believe that all he has to do is to study one book to get decent marks will never go beyond that. More horrific is the board system which questions from prescribed books alone.
Twenty years back our teachers encouraged us to read as many reference books as possible so that one could answer the questions which though connected with the syllabus were asked in such a way that they made us scratch our heads.
A whole generation is thus into "manufactured intelligence" which will eventually clog the spirit of inquiry.
b) Why is the syllabus so vast that an intensive study by the child becomes a pain in the neck? Fewer topics requiring divergent viewpoints by different authors would encourage the analytical bent, besides making the concept clearer.
c) Why are term papers requiring research and carrying marks which are to be included in the grand total not introduced as part of the learning process? Writing of term papers requires an in-depth study and will encourage the child to go to the library or sit on the internet.
d) Why should the teachers dictate their age-old notes rather than letting the child use his brain and effort. She can recommend books. Otherwise as they say give a coin and make him a beggar for life.
e) Most important why school education should not be uniform so that the handicap of "foreign languages" should vanish altogether and the child’s dependence on guides disappear.
f) Last, why cannot the
teachers believe that they are on a mission to create thinking, bright
individuals and not simply there to finish the syllabus? There are a
few exceptions but teaching has become like any other job, to be done
and got over with.
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