Looking beyond exams

School, university grading can’t be regarded as the soul of the learning experience

Looking beyond exams

More to academics: In the post-Covid world, we need a kind of education that radiates the spirit of love, care and integral learning.

Avijit Pathak


What an ugly system of education we have created over the years! It confuses awakened intelligence with rote learning, inner flowering with grading, and life with bookish knowledge. Is it, therefore, surprising that even at this moment of the pandemic, when death is mere statistics and everything is upside down, the prevalent system cannot see beyond ‘online teaching’ and the ritualisation of examinations? It doesn’t matter even if a girl from Kerala commits suicide as she feels wounded because of her inability to attend online classes in this unequal society characterised by heightened digital divide. It doesn’t matter if young students, their parents and the larger society are experiencing severe mental stress, and there is widespread fear. We are told that online classes must go on, the same age-old syllabus has to be covered and exams must be conducted. Hence, I do appreciate that a group of parents have moved the SC against the CBSE decision to conduct the board examinations of remaining papers in July.

All of us—parents, teachers, students and concerned citizens—who still cherish the idea of a more life-affirming and ethically meaningful education, must stand together and propose a new paradigm. It would be an act of betrayal, if even at this time of breakdown of the conventional notion of progress and development, we do not reimagine the way our children should grow up in the post-Covid world.

To begin with, it is important to realise, and state boldly that examinations as ceremonies of power seek to objectify and ‘discipline’ young students, place them in a scale of measurement and comparison, and thereby promote the psychology of hyper-competitiveness, envy and sado-masochism. This deprives a learner of immeasurable and qualitative experiences associated with meaningful learning—say, the inner churning implicit in the poetic act of reading William Wordsworth and Rabindranath Tagore; the ecstasy of wonder in looking at the sky and exploring the physics of the solar system; or, for that matter, the creative fulfilment in measuring the volume of a football a child plays with, as she learns the geometry of a sphere. As an ‘exam warrior’, one must go through the life-killing process of drilling, mock tests and instant consumption of knowledge capsules as delivered by coaching centres and guide books. Hence, we should not have any illusion; there is no necessary correlation between 99% in CBSE English and one’s literary and cultural sensibilities; or between 100% in physics and one’s scientific spirit.

No harm would be done to the growth of knowledge, if at this time of the pandemic, schools or universities refuse to conduct the ritualisation of annual examinations, and declare the results on the basis of their performance in the papers they have already written. Our children would be free from chronic anxiety, and possibly find some meditative space which is needed to make sense of the issues relating to fear and death, science and uncertainty, and disease and stigma. Sensitivity or a nuanced art of living—not a ‘perfect’ grade sheet from the academic bureaucracy—is needed. As a matter of fact, we need to fight and strive for the kind of education that stresses more on the process of inner flowering, physical/mental and spiritual growth, art of relatedness with nature and the community, and everyday challenges that inspire young learners to relate theory and practice, book and life, and science and ethics. If learning happens all the time, why should we be so neurotically obsessed with one examination?

Second, we need to redefine the meaning of being a teacher or the art of teaching. It is sad that the prevalent system has reduced a teacher into a non-reflexive/obedient cog in a learning machine. A teacher has become merely a mediator between the official curriculum and students. Her only task, it seems, is to ‘cover’ the syllabus, restore ‘order’ in the classroom, conduct examinations, grade or hierarchise students, and supply this ‘data’ to the higher authorities. Hence, as teachers, we have almost forgotten that we are essentially communicators, friends and healers. Our task is not merely to cover the syllabus of biology and history; through the process of dissemination of science and humanities we are expected to relate to these young minds, act as catalysts, and walk together as we pass through the curved trajectory of life. For instance, a good teacher would not ask a student merely to memorise the date of Gandhi-Irwin pact; she would tell him the extraordinary stories of Gandhi’s Noakhali days in 1946. Or for that matter, when death has lost its meaning and dignity at the time of the pandemic, she would not remain contented with just another online class on thermodynamics; she would probably listen to her student’s fear and anxiety, recite a poem from Tagore’s Gitanjali, and create a sacred moment of love and prayers.

Life has to be lived gracefully and meaningfully, and school/university examinations cannot be regarded as the soul of the learning experience. Hence, at this turning point, we all have to walk together, and reimagine a kind of education that radiates the spirit of love, care and integral learning which is needed in the post-Covid world. The spirit of life-affirming education has to be rescued from the alliance of academic bureaucrats and traders of ‘knowledge’.

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