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Dear PM, exam festivals won't solve students' problem

By Anjuli Bhargava
March 02, 2015 14:14 IST
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If Modi wants students to experience "enjoyment in taking examinations," as he claims, he must get HRD Minister Smriti Irani to take a long, hard look at the content.

Content must be lively, dynamic and a stretch for the student's mind.

For students to enjoy the exams, the content must be lively

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has poor handwriting.

He never scored high marks as a student.

He passed his examinations, perhaps, because his teachers could barely read what he wrote.

Yet he is leading our nation of a billion-odd people.

In a radio talk the other day, Modi urged students not to consider examinations a burden.

He also suggested "exam festivals" be held twice a year at schools to help lift the tension surrounding examinations.

He wants satirical poems and cartoon contests on the subject.

The prime minister's statement is well timed.

The class X and class XII examinations are under way.

There's no denying that students are highly stressed and it is not uncommon to read of student suicides -- both prior to such examinations and post the results, evidence of the extreme pressure they are under.

It is well-intentioned.

The prime minister has been trying to connect with the youth and what better way than to raise a subject close to their heart?

Most of his advice to students makes eminent sense.

He advises students not to think that their life depends on examinations.

He urges students to believe in themselves.

He advises parents not to constantly compare their children with others.

The prime minister's statement -- a first from any Indian prime minister and coming at a time like this -- would, I have no doubt, have struck a chord with millions.

But some of his suggestions tend to trivialise the issue at hand.

Exam festivals twice a year? What exactly would these accomplish?

Students would enjoy the two weeks of festival time and then brace themselves for the examinations.

Poems and cartoons may bring a smile to their faces temporarily but pressure will build up as the examinations come closer.

Why would pressure build up? This is primarily because the Indian education system is broken.

If Modi wants students to experience "enjoyment in taking examinations," as he claims, he must get HRD Minister Smriti Irani to take a long, hard look at the content.

Content must be lively, dynamic and a stretch for the student's mind.

It must kindle imagination, challenge and build curiosity. It has to force them to think.

Ask any high school student what the endless formulae in chemistry are leading up to and why he is memorising them and he looks blank.

In the best boards -- ICSE and CBSE, for instance -- the curriculum lacks originality and almost at no point are students invited to question "why".

How else does one explain scores of 96 and 98 (out of a total of 100) in subjects like English and history?

The previous United Progressive Alliance government might be more to blame for this, but almost no national effort has been made to improve teacher quality and training.

With pay scales far below corporate levels, women who are now looking at serious careers are no longer limiting themselves to teaching jobs.

Even at the best private schools, it is often untrained housewives -- who don't need to earn a living but don't mind being occupied for some hours of the day -- filling in as teachers.

Extra, out-of-school tuitions are a way of life and not just for privileged children.

By the time students take their board examinations, it is not uncommon for them to be taking tuitions in four or five subjects.

I know several parents who pay more to tutors than to the school in monthly fees.

Modi wants students to compete with themselves. But with university cut-offs reaching absurd levels, can they afford to compete only with themselves?

To secure seats in any of the Indian Institutes of Technology, medical colleges or in any competitive professional courses, the students have no choice but to compete with each other.

With the system broken, some of the brightest students leave the country almost as soon as they are done with their schooling.

These numbers are growing and it's not only those who can afford to pay who leave.

The best American universities pay tuition, boarding, lodging and even air tickets for students they want to lure.

So, if the prime minister wants the tension of examinations to ease up, he may have to look at some more serious reform of India's education system than holding festivals.

Photo: Sahil Salvi/Rediff.com

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Anjuli Bhargava
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