Cultivating Intelligence in India

2/20/11

In a recent article for the New York Times, titled “Skipping Over Rote in Indian Schools,” a new tactic in the Indian education system was explored.  In a country where the literacy level is only 64%, and the underprivileged are often left without a voice or any real chance at opportunity, India is taking steps to restructure government schools for the nearly 500 million children in the education system. As is the incentive with the majority of projects like this in any country, a leg up in global competition plays a part in motivation. Moving away from the strict and authoritarian methods of rote memorization and regimented drills and testing, projects and presentations now have a place in the five-year project funded by Azim H. Premji–one of India’s richest men. With this restructuring of the school system come the questions: “What do we really mean by education? How can it be measured? How can we teach our children to learn and retain meaning?

One Indian teacher, Pradeep Prandley, addressed the changes made in many Indian assessments that reflect the incorporation of many of these questions as he stated: “Before, we had a clear idea of the answers and the child had to repeat exactly what we had in mind…We can’t keep doing what we did in the past, and pass them without letting them learn anything.”

Though this is a movement going on half way around the world, the issue of true learning that Mr. Prandley (and the various efforts of the Premji Foundation) analyzes is one that is just as important to contemplate in  our American education system. Though in many ways our system is a model for the restructuring of the Indian education system, (i.e. the project based learning opportunities and interactive classes that were pioneered by Westernized education) we still include what seems to me to be rigid and inauthentic methods of testing and teaching. Rote memorization and “cramming” were common experiences for me in middle school and high school, and they occurred just as often as the alternative. I think that we need to incorporate methods of “authentic testing” into our curriculum just as many Indian schools are attempting to do. We need to take the focus off of letter grades and arbitrary ratings, and try to focus on goals that create more meaning for our children and for the future of our world.

This idea is one that David Orr, well known environmentalist and author of the book “Earth in Mind,” takes time to address in his rant about the problem with American education. Pointing out that American culture and its arrogance in believing that we are the “pinnacle of human achievement,” Orr asserts that we must rethink our skewed perception of American superiority, and that this rethinking begins with the way we define the purpose of our education. He tells us that “the goal of education is not mastery of subject matter but mastery of one’s person…knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world” (Earth in Mind, 13). To do this, Orr proposes that we hire teachers who incorporate care, thoughtfulness, and ideals. He tells us that we must eliminate “indoor learning,” and teach our students that learning does not take place only inside of four walls. In a country where finding a “career” becomes the central question of identity, we don’t learn what it means to question and waver. We are taught to find direct paths and make five-year plans. We are taught that the world is divided–into disciplines and subjects and threads. In reality, it’s a web. Like David Orr, I worry that the sense of wonder we all possess as children is stifled as we memorize facts and rules and continue to color in the lines. We teach about our “rights” to happiness and success, but not about what it means to be a good citizen. In order to make all of the great changes our generation needs to (in the terrifying face of global warming, extreme violence, and economic failure) we need to be taught to see things more holistically–to apply our knowledge in a realistic way. Too often, we graduate from educational institutions with a list of letters, and feel lost to put all of those hours writing with cramped hands and typing under fluorescent lights to use. Understanding that we need to judge intellect in a way that doesn’t just involve red check marks, gold stars, and GPAs, we need to adjust the way we rank our educational institutions.

As Orr claims, “one of the most consistent idiosyncracies of Americans is their penchant for ranking things. It is, on the whole, a harmless pastime, giving indoor pleasure to many, and bestowing high status upon those called  on to create and maintain various rankings…one should not presume, however, that the relationship between such lists and reality is great…their function is to gratify, amuse, employ, sell, or fuel disagreement”(Earth in Mind, 89). So, what is the purpose of all of our ranking? Is it actually serving to improve our educational institutions by providing a sort of check and balance and means of “choice,” or is it just another nod to the corporate powers and obsession with competition that controls so much of our lives? I know that I have discussed ranking before, but it is a tendency that fascinates me. What if we ranked our institutions based on what meaningful feats their graduates accomplished post-graduation and how the education they experienced helped to get them there? What if we we ranked independent thinking and creativity on campuses across the country? What if we evaluated political involvement on campuses and the number of connections made between subjects in every classroom? Thinking about these questions, I realize that the concept of “authentic assessment” is a way to begin moving our educational values from the more concrete values of memorized facts and test scores to the abstract values of problem solving and connective thought.

Authentic assessment requires students to apply their knowledge to “real world” tasks. Though the grading of such assessments is admittedly more difficult, involving a rubric and flexibility on the part of the grader, the results seem worth it. Shouldn’t we aim to develop a nation of creative problem solvers? Shouldn’t we prepare the next generations to face all of the world issues that have been forced upon them by the failures of the generations that came before them? In an education system centered on authentic assessment, knowledge of WWII can be determined through the use of concept maps, mock interviews, journal entries, and debate. Technological knowledge may be evaluated through a student-created website, and knowledge of chemistry determined through the success of designing and launching a hot air balloon (http://jonathan.mueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/toolbox/index.htm).

Though it must be acknowledged that there are many different learning styles, and all should be addressed, I believe that incorporating authentic assessments into the curriculum of all schools in the American education is a necessary step. When it comes to developing national standards, these should be included. If we need to keep with our rankings and standardized testing, we need to include this method of skill analysis within them. Here, the philosophy of “open education” also comes into play. This is a  philosophy focused on treating a child as an “active agent” in his/her education, integrated curriculum, interaction between age groups, lessening the fear of failure by stressing the necessity to learn from mistakes, fostering a relationship between the student and the environment, and enforcing community and moral support in education (http://www.jstor.org/stable/1492284?seq=2).

By incorporating authentic assessment, open philosophy, and an understanding of the integrated nature of our world into the education system, we stand a chance at better preparing the children of this country realistically for the future.

 

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