Friday, January 25, 2013

The metaphor of 'difference between rotation and revolution'- III

Many parents  are not very concerned  about whether their children learn anything or not so long as they score marks in exams. For instance, a child solved a problem by the wrong method but got the right answer by fluke because of the particular combination of numbers used. I wanted to correct the error but the mother was happy that her son had got the correct answer and moved on to the next problem. The tragedy is that exactly the same problem from the textbook will come for the exam, the child will solve it using the wrong method, get full marks and everyone will be happy. So the child will never learn what the error was. This will have consequences in higher classes.

The topics covered seem to be a lot lesser than what I seem to remember. Of course one must remember what one professor told his students when they asked him what he  would cover during the term - 'It is not about what I cover but about what you discover.' But with the methods of teaching and learning that I see, I am not sure how much students discover. For example, students are asked to memorise the scientific names of various creatures or the atomic numbers of various elements. Parrots could do that. ( Actual exam questions: 1.The scientific name for saffron is___ 2.An element with 15 protons, 15 electrons and 16 neutrons is_______) Hardly any time is spent explaining the Scientific Method.  Most Indians graduating from their 12th standard in the high schools of India don’t know what science is.

Studying to learn  and studying to score marks in exams are two different things. In an ideal world the two approaches should coincide but we live in a messy world. The good schools achieve a decent balance between the two objectives. But in the majority of schools (especially in Tamil Nadu from what I can see) the emphasis seems to be on maximizing the marks scored in tests irrespective of whether the student has actually learnt something.

Over the years, there has been considerable marks inflation. I often hear about absurd cut-off marks for admission in various colleges. I studied with many super-brains at various levels and I keep wondering whether so many of these students are so much better than them. It seems improbable.

The libaral marking may havee been an effort to reduce stress on students but it may be having the opposite effect because in spite of doing well in the exams, they have to sweat over college admmission. I have heard students say that it is no use studying hard because they are still not sure of getting admission in good colleges. (Again the conflation of studies and marks.) The liberal marking may be detrimental to students. In this interesting course introduction, a professor at Yale University explains why he is strict in awarding grades.

Whenever multifaceted, amorphous concepts are sought to be measured along a linear scale, some information is sure to be lost. This problem happens when there is excessive focus on marks. For example, the ability to write grammatically correct sentences and arrange them properly so as to express one's thoughts clearly is an important skill which the marks don't tell you anything about.I don't think enough attention is being paid to developing the writing abilities of students.

However highly qualified you are, it is an advantage to to be able to write clearly in the language that the person at the receiving end is able to understand. In many bussines situations, this happens to be English due to historical reasons, what economists call a path dependant process. (Here is an account of an attempt to create the perfect language. I am sure it handles these emotions better than English.) I was surprised to see that in the previous school Sujit studied in, the students were asked to memorise some essays that had been dictated to them and the students were asked to vomit out one of these essays during the exams.

It seems to be a fashion these days for students to attend tuitions. When I was a student, only the weak students went for tuitions but now everybody goes for tuitions. It seems to have got into the heads of students that attending tuitions is essential for scoring marks in exams. (Again the conflation of marks with learning.)

These tuition centres know the patterns of questions in various exam papers and they make the students do just those types of questions. The students score well in the exams and both they and the parents are happy. Little actual learning takes place. If you ask the students the same questions in a different form, they will struggle to answer.

PS: Here is a chat with Salman Khan of Khan Academies at Google and here is an earlier talk he gave at Google.

PPS:  Finnish education system

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