02 August, 2008

Schooling - A nightmare for students

C. Radhakrishnan

All of us have met someone in the course of our schooling that made us feel bad about ourselves. For many people it was a teacher or head master. For others it was a librarian, a class monitor, an attendant, or a classmate. The type of individual I am referring to is stern, arrogant, and intolerant of younger people's opinions or others. They seem to dislike kids or others, making you wonder why they chose to go into the field of education in the first place.

These negative people change lives. Sure, plenty of us lose self-esteem as a result. The ones who suffer most don't get enough recognition at home. But where parents fall short, teachers ought to step in. Teachers, especially at the elementary level, are supposed to be inspired individuals. They're supposed to be working not just for the benefits and vacations, but for the satisfaction of influencing and guiding young lives. It is their charge to be aware of the psychology behind children's bad behaviour and emphasize their positive traits rather than their shortcomings. Punishment is an act of laziness; educational professionals have a duty to redirect their students' energy. But how many of our teachers know these facts? The question I wanted to raise is, do our teachers get sufficient training or do our government follow a proper system to recruit teachers?

So can we end up our search for reasons, why schools become a nightmare for many students? According to me the answer is a big no. Teachers are not the reason kids hate school. They are merely the symptoms of a badly misconceived system, one that has been broken for so many years that it's difficult to believe it could ever actually be fixed. The phenomenon of students hating school spans age and class barriers, though it is rarely addressed as an issue. What has triggered such a powerful feeling about an institution that is a part of every person's childhood? Consider this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“See in schools how the system thwart the natural love of learning by leaving the natural method of teaching what each wishes to learn, and insisting that you shall learn what you have no taste or capacity for. The schools, which should be a place of delightful labour, is made odious and unhealthy, and the young men are tempted to playful amusements to rally their cynical spirits. I would have the studies elective. Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge.”

After much consideration, I have come up with four reasons: the curriculum, the management, the evaluation system and the restrictiveness.

The Curriculum

The curriculum in schools nowadays is outdated and unfriendly to students. In my first seven years of schooling, I read no books other than the text books. These are books that kill our excitement and imagination, filling the mind with hate towards learning and reading. In high school, I didn't encounter one book worth the time I spent reading it. What the old people who dictate the curriculum from their powerful positions don't understand is that a young person's brain is fertile and yearning for new possibilities. It doesn't "get" sophisticated irony or religious symbolism or political messages. More importantly, literature is supposed to entertain. How can students learn to love reading when they are forced to read Hamlet and MacBeth, works so dense and confusing that 90% of the adults in this country could never even understand them? Students should be allowed to read any books they enjoy. After all, it is the reading itself that matters. Once a love of reading is fostered, it becomes a lifelong interest. And reading makes people smarter. In high schools across the country, students are being taught to hate reading because of the unpleasant books they are force-fed.

History, Maths, and Science have less easily-solvable problems, but there is still plenty to be done. For instance, why isn't history ever related to modern-day life? Children need context. Making them memorize the date the Allahabad Treaty was signed is simply a waste of time. The only time that information would come in handy is during a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Even an event as important as the 1857 Revolt needs to be abandoned in the way it is conventionally taught. Children can't relate to the passionate patriotism that incited the Revolt. All they get out of it is a bunch of men running around on bare foot or riding on horse and plundering and massacring innocent people. In order to teach them more effectively, they should be shown what history accomplished for them. Parallels to other countries that are not yet liberated should be drawn. For instance, they could be taught about pre-democratic Nepal. Guest speakers and video shows could be arranged. Only by example can a student begin to realize the greatness of most historical events.

The same principle of showing rather than telling is even more applicable to math and science. These subjects, especially in high school, border on the completely useless for most students. They are nothing more than elaborate, year-long sets of riddles.

I say, those with theoretical minds should be given reign to study all the trigonometry and calculus and physics they want. After all, nurturing our future mathematicians and scientists is crucial. But those who are not inclined towards math and science should not be made to spend their time studying a subject that does not interest them. Boring students out of their minds does not make them enjoy learning. Quite the opposite.

And why are so many practical necessities skipped over in school-things like reading a map, using common computer applications and filling a check book. Why isn't there more emphasis on self-knowledge? If students were made to study themselves, the adult population would be a lot more emotionally stable.

The Management

The school management system today is out of use and unscientific. This makes teachers an unsatisfied, disgusted and non learner and ultimately makes lessons imparted by them a true nightmare for the children.

Management is about people, not results, resources or retribution. If you manage people well – if you provide good leadership and the vision that inherent to being a good leader then the day to day management of resources will be guided by what the people really need and want. The all important result will come from the people for whom you have provided as a manager and leader. Manage as you wish to be managed by yourself. Make the phrase “my staffs are my most important resource” mean something. The phrase is all too often spoken at staff meetings, and at the start and end of the school year, and it has an empty ring for many. But the question is how many of our headmasters/principals know well about modern education management or trained for that? How many of them in fact care for the teachers well being and their progress? Do we impart any proper professional training to people who aspire to become school leaders?

From my experience, I can unambiguously tell that teaching resources (teachers) are not managed well in our country. There are many reasons why teachers are displeased and teaching is below the expectation of every one. Let me take the issue of teacher’s duties in schools. In almost all schools duties of teachers are not specifically defined. Teachers should be allowed to concentrate in teaching and continuous learning for innovating new techniques to make their lessons interesting. They should be given sufficient time during school hours, to prepare for the lessons. Every one should acknowledge that after the school hours they can be free mentally from their work pressure. Dumping works other than teaching, such as clerical works should be completely stopped. For CCA activities there must be a separate department with sufficient staff; and language and subject teachers are relieved from such pressure. We must accept that teaching is not a mere clerical job. It’s a job that involves the emotions, the mind and the body of the teacher. Leave them to the world of learning and innovative teaching rather than dumping them with all unnecessary works which has no relation with what they teach. Understand, effective lesson planning and delivery takes place only when teacher does his/her home work well. If we succeed in creating an atmosphere of learning and innovation for teachers in schools, a major reason for students hating the schools can be avoided and our schools will become a centre of ‘happy learning’.

For better teaching, performance management should be made as an integral part of school management system. There are number of issues that require careful, sensitive handling. These encompass:

1. Staff selection and interviewing, including how to setup an effective staff selection process;

2. Mentoring newly qualified teachers in their first year;

3. Managing the performance of new and existing staff;

4. Mentoring failing staff, identified either by inspection or by the schools appraisal systems;

5. Regular in service courses to update the methodologies and practices of teaching, learning and students assessments.

The Evaluation System

Speaking of emotional stability, what tainted individual made it mandatory for schools to systematically compare students? Do they ever read Howard Gardner or purposefully negated his words? The policy of giving marks or grading in examinations, compiling averages, and assigning ranks is simplistic, demoralizing, and just plain mean. Ranking students is the same as classification, labelling, or stereotyping: "A" students are Excellent, "B" students are good, "C" students are average, and "D" or "E" students are below average. This is actually the way people think. If you don't believe me, ask a room full of people to place a sticker containing their X or XII examination score on their shirt. If you could get them to do it, you would see how sharply everyone's perceptions change when they believe they are seeing a measure of another person's intelligence. Introduce someone with a "475" on their sticker and you'll see an immediate increase in the level of respect (and resentment) shown to that person. Give someone a "375" and he'll be looked at with superiority and pity, even if he was previously seen as intelligent. Labels change opinions unnecessarily.

Grades not only influence other people's perceptions; they affect a person's self-perception. We tend to define ourselves by the opinions of others. Why should children have to doubt themselves? It is better to encourage their abilities, rather than labelling them so that they become turned off to subjects they would otherwise be inclined to explore. Schools need to recognize the complexity of the individual, rather than defining students in terms of grades and test scores. Detailed evaluations should take the place of quarterly report cards. This would not only eliminate the unnecessary demoralizing of students, but it would require teachers to evaluate their students as individuals. The sooner we stop rating and labelling kids, the easier it will be for them to recognize their worth, and make more significant contributions to society.

The Restrictiveness

A final and lesser-acknowledged problem for students is the unreasonable restrictiveness imposed on them by the school system. In short, they are denied their basic civil rights. They are unilaterally subjected to the wills of teachers, many of whom routinely allow their personal preferences to supersede the needs of the class. They may not speak freely, choose how they spend their time, or object to authority, for fear of being punished or picked on. In the real world, of course, the student or the student's guardian has the freedom to reject situations that feel oppressive.

The current system was made to contain troublemakers, not promote a positive learning environment. But why do we have to assume the worst of students? If the Board Of Education had students' enjoyment of learning in mind when they made the rules, the only guidelines in existence would be conduct-related. Exams and projects would be optional, and students would be able to choose their own classes. The learning experience would be the students' for the taking. Contrary to what critics will say, kids would still learn if they weren't forced to take tests. Learning can be fun-if it is individualized. As Emerson put it, "scholarship is created…by awakening a pure interest in knowledge."

The Bottom Line

The worst products of the school system end up alienated from the natural curiosity and hopeful idealism they came in with; the best end up pursuing their own passions anyhow.

I say, why not give all students the opportunity to enjoy learning while they are still in school?