The ABCs of ABCs

'Talent', 'Exceptional', 'Concept', 'Techno', 'Brilliant' - you will not even be in the vicinity of rightness if you suppose that these hyperbolic accolades are doled out by, what has now become a standard TV fixture worldwide, a three judge panel, during some talent show witnessing a routine act that was only marginally better than the others. No sir! you'll be seriously remiss! All the above are the in vogue terms in a totally unrelated arena - Education. You'll be have to scratch your head hard to make that connection between those words and 'school'. In the model of standardized education and standardized testing procedures, what do the terms 'Techno', 'Brilliant', and 'Concept' even mean? Jog your memory back to those days when the word 'convent' meant success and so automatically you found institutions like 'Sri Ramakrishna Convent High School', 'Gita Mandir Convent', that stuck out like a sore thumbs, like those low end banner ads that read 'Grammer taught here'. Convents, which are the resident quarters of the nuns in the Catholic domain, were bundled together with the educational institutions, so that the nuns could teach school in the morning and practice their faith for the rest of the day, all in the same premises. That Catholic schools, with its martinet mistresses and stiff upper lip staff, stood for the perfect mix of education and discipline, gained the well earned reputation that kids - talented and torrid - would do well under the watchful eyes and the gaze of the nuns, who had maddening obsession for keeping order. That was how 'convent' became to represent a strict and a successful school, which immediately found poor, cheap and idiot imitators trying to replicate the success merely by using the right words, conveniently forgetting that fundamental consideration that a convent is a faith based institution and not a successful teaching methodology. That malapropism certainly did stop scores of eager parents lining up before the fake and mangled 'convents' trying to get their kids 'convent education' for a fraction of original's price, and the free markets gladly obliged.

That was then, when schools came in only three kinds - elementary, primary and high. Now the choice, and with it the confusion, has grown manifold. Walk down through any thoroughfare, a back alley or even a bi-lane in any Indian city, and billboards, posters, stick-ons of all sizes and shapes guilt you into believing that your kid is going to be long left behind in the race to the top if he is not enrolled immediately in some combination of 'techno', 'bright', 'brilliant', 'concept' school. When did this leap into ultra-competitive, pure paranoiac mindset happen from a seemingly subdued situation in what is first of all a dull and a drab field - education? Has education, right from the Kindergarten level, been re-engineered and retro fitted to suit the marketplace demands.? When the job classifieds scour for live-wires and bleeding-edgers in daily newspapers, the phrases immediately find ground in the mission statements and the prospectuses of the school - Want your kid to turn into a live-wire and an out-lier? Why wait till it is too late? Join him in our 'Exceptionally Brilliant Techno Concept Pre-school', and allow us to transform him into the over-achiever you never were and you never imagined him to be. Seemingly, schools have taken the leap from being merely the providers of the primary platforms to becoming focused and targeted vocational and professional trainers. Wait, this is not an issue of the ever-changing standards of education, which always change with each generation. It is about the selling of the education. Extra-large, extra-powerful, supreme quality, unbelievable results and unmatched whiteness - Surf has been touting to be doing pretty much the same thing since my childhood - drop your dirties, pour in Surf, and Voila, witness the whiteness that would put even chalk to shame. The product has been the same, but the words around it changed, a la, education.

Education, along with health, has sadly become a fantastic business model that leapfrogged the rising living standards, preying avariciously on the fears, anxieties, and uncertainties about the future. The forking point, SSC, that once decided which path the student would progress along in search for his bright future, got moved at least 3-4 years earlier, owing to the manic urge of the parents to get a leg up above the rest, and with it a new business model rose up to cater to exactly that - getting the tots ready for the long run well before their support systems are fully developed. And once the business is birthed and blooded, it didn't need much to become a self-sustaining and an immensely thriving entity within no time, and the words 'brilliant', 'techno' and the like are just the manifestations of a rapidly evolving field trying to outdo itself with each iteration. Add to that the rapid globalization that has taken place in the past few years which further muddled the scene by rough stitching varied teaching methods and processes. The word 'international' is the new 'abracadabra' in the schooling business nowadays, playing up to the gullible customers' (parents) blind craving for anything foreign. The wild demand for foreign goods during the pre-liberalization days boiled over into the new entrant into the field - education. That the smart business folk are alert enough to capitalize on the age old trend ('India - poor, foreign - rich, India - bad, foreign - good, and therefore, anything domestic - worthless, anything international - priceless') is the prime reason why even old establishments started decades ago are rushing to wipe out the archaic 'elementary', 'primary' and 'high' from their names and falling head over heels to get the much profitable 'international' moniker in its title, chucking the well established teaching methods in favor of the untested 'international' standards and practices.

At the root of it all lies omnipresent population explosion issue. On top of it lies the unwavering stance of the elite institutions to not increase their enrollment proportionately to the growing numbers, for their own personal fear of dilution/diminution of their brand value. What is it but the first theory of economics - resources are limited, wants are limited - being demonstrated on the biggest ever sample possible. This serious lopsidedness between the numbers on either side of the demand and supply equation, created a space for the profiteers to exploit the worries of the parents of locking a secure future for their offsprings, even if it is at an exorbitant premium. And so if one school comes with a 'concept' of hurrying the kids through the learning process and getting them ready for the start gates at the long race, by simple rules of business, another school comes up with a different 'technology' of reorienting the kids' brain to operate at super-human level to get the right results. And the slippery slope continues with different 'theories', 'foundations', 'headstarts' and such. All the keywords that had once echoed in the halls of haloed business schools now find a new home in the academic corridors, with the fundamental and dire difference that, if a business fails it might only affect a few, but if the whole schooling system careens out of control, the whole society suffers. And the schooling system just keeps pushing itself to the precipice with each round of new census numbers, coming up with highly unsustainable and self-defeating models, trying to capture the attention of an already crowded market segment saturated with innovation. And beyond that precipice lies the domain where the only law that prevails is the one of diminishing returns. Sure, the schools churn out great academic ranks and results, but how many great scientists, innovators, thinkers, visionaries, philosophers and artists do these stellar results account for? And if the percent of translation is miniscule, what right do these decision makers (parents and educators) have sucking the childhood out of the kids with the promise of handing a bright future.

Let's turn our attention to the teaching processes themselves, which are undergoing a radical change with the advent of foreign tools and ideas. Broadly teaching methodologies are of two types - rote and reason. And each of these evolved a period of time and is a subject of the social conditions. Where numbers are pronounced, it was found that rote worked well and where teaching had the luxury of space and attention, reason worked well. These are empirical statements that have been proved time and again over a multitude of populations. In thickly populated countries, math and science, learned through rote reigned supreme and in sparsely populated ones where the curriculum stressed on reason, analysis and expression, arts and humanities flourished. Each system has its own merits and pitfalls (while rote created far few thinkers, reason failed to create a strong foundation), the processes thrived in their own spaces with their own reasons for their success. But globalization has started a dangerous trend of importing ideas into unfamiliar territories and applying them with no regard to the underlying social conditions. And so a primary school with a sizable student strength that had till then relied on rote suddenly switched over the new 'international' standards, where the major share of the academics is supplanted by the 'creative' curriculum. On paper the idea sounds like an ideal combination that would activate and energize both sides of the brain (the ones responsible for memory and analysis). What else could a parent hope for, a child who is strong in academics while being a creative thinker? But there is a paradoxical catch with this scenario. The main aim of public education is creating a common platform (a Least Common Denominator, of sorts) where majority, not just a few, are imparted with the basic/minimum skills that would allow them to move forward and upward. Because, truth be told, real genius thrives free of any models and it is for the rest that a strong system be put in place that would equip them with the ways and means to adapt and survive. And this is the reason, the strong foundation laid down on the 'rote' platform allowed Indians to survive and prosper in many lands in many fields.

It is a fact that not every one of those is a certified genius coming out of that system, yet the adaptability that was acquired which emphasized on the employment of memory more than free thinking, forms the basis of survival and success. And so, regardless of the social imperative that education is the gateway for employment for the masses, when, in the name of greed, schools start to change their models to stress less on the hard parts and glorify the lighter aspects, so that they could collect more fees in the name of including more creative aspects in their curriculum, everyone (who is not a prodigy) suffers - the kids, the parents and the society. Now go back to those billboards and count the number of 'international', 'talent', 'techno', 'concept', 'foundation', 'brilliant' schools ready to take over the schooling universe and think who opened the Pandora's box first - the parents, who yearn to raise their offspring as per the 'international' norms, or the businessmen who try to cash in on this obvious weakness.

An adage went 'those who can, do, and those who can't, teach'. Not necessarily, in this day and age.

1 comment:

vasishta bommakanti said...

the most insightful article i have ever read on education system!