South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Amrit Dhillon says income inequality, corrupt teachers and a fruitless insistence on rote learning are holding poorer Indian students back
Let’s refrain from easy moralising about the recent picture of Indians cheating in exams that became a global phenomenon. It shows people perched precariously on the window sills and ledges of a four-storey building in Bihar passing slips of paper through the windows to help their relatives or friends cheat in the exam being held inside.
Some context is useful. Most of the students in the Bihar building were from poor families who have been deprived of the opportunities rich Indians enjoy, and if they could do anything to pre-empt a life of deprivation, they would.
While not condoning cheating, I think these students and their families are entitled to ask why the outrage is so selective: why is there no anger at the pathetic education they get in Bihar schools where teachers don’t turn up for the most part and classrooms are worse than sheds? The result, as a recent report showed, is that only 50 per cent of the 570,000 fifth-grade students surveyed in India can read a second-grade textbook.
Honesty struggles to retain a foothold when competition for jobs is so crazy that your exam grades determine your destiny. When the State Bank of India advertised 1,500 menial vacancies in 2013, it received 1.7 million applications. That’s the reality for poor Indians and that’s why parents will do anything, including scaling walls, to help their children do well in the school-leaving exam.
They also have to deal with corrupt teachers. My driver, who is from Bihar, says that his son’s physics lecturer at university has told him that his marks depend on the cash he receives.
That apart, the government needs to dismantle the system of rote learning in Indian schools which turns students into parrots, capable of memorising everything and understanding nothing. At my son’s school, the divide between those studying for the International Baccalaureate (IB) and for the Indian Central Board of Secondary Education exam is vast. Memorising will not help my son pass his IB exams because the syllabus demands that he demonstrates real understanding. Students taking the other exam, however, memorise textbooks and tick multiple-choice questions. The few sentences they write have to be identical to what they have read in the books to win high marks.
If rote learning is demolished, then cheating will vanish. Students will only be able to succeed in exams if they have understood the concepts. Rote learning kills creativity, originality and critical thinking, which is why India is so rarely in the vanguard of anything new in science, technology, design or even popular culture. Without a culture of innovation, exploration, risk-taking and the questioning of accepted ideas, India will struggle to find solutions to its problems.
Apart from brilliant and bold educational thinkers like Sugata Mitra, who won the 2013 TED prize for his experiments to see how far children can learn by using the internet and working in small groups – with minimal adult supervision – little is being done to reform education to make it work for the poor.
Even if another Mitra does emerge, the environment is not conducive to encouraging his experiments or providing funding – Mitra now teaches in Britain rather than India, where his ideas are needed most.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India