Studying in a so-called "alternative school" in Bangalore, our child had blissfully spent the first few years of her school life playing in the sandpit, climbing monkey bars and asking endless questions. The world of studies was introduced slowly, gently.
Exams were an alien concept to her as her school believed that children should not be burdened with the pressure of testing until they were at least ten years old. So while other children spent their evenings preparing for tests, she pored over books, drew cards for absolutely no reason and rationalized creating on-demand funny, short plays as a life skill.
As the date of the first exam drew close, the behaviour of the parents changed suddenly. WhatsApp groups were created to discuss the syllabus and homework.
"They are being taught to think. Critical reasoning," My husband said.
"At least she'll find herself a career as a stand-up comic." I told myself when discipline clashed with creativity and humour.
And then she entered middle school. The beginning of testing times. Children got pulled out of parties and were kept at home to study. As the date of the first exam drew close, the behaviour of the parents changed suddenly. WhatsApp groups were created to discuss the syllabus and homework. The harried parents probably remembered their own exam-ridden childhood which culminated in a mad rush for the best college and the best course.
As I muted the endless WhatsApp chats that now meandered into territories such as the psychology of parenting and the need for reinforcement of key messages through homework, I glanced at her to gauge if she looked stressed.
She was taking a break from her studies. Sitting in the balcony on a swing chair, she was singing a song to herself about a girl who grows up without fear.
I kept my phone away. Let her taste and touch the world in her own way. Exams would hopefully never become the only truth of her life.
An alternative approach or "real" education?
As a mother and as an entrepreneur/advisor working closely with the education system, I found myself asking the larger question around effective education and the role of assessments.
The state of India's current education system lies locked somewhere between its colonial past and its globalized present and future. The indigenous village schools that were functional till the 1800s were largely replaced by the current educational system, articulated by Lord Macaulay in 1835 and followed in letter and spirit, till date. The effort at that time was, "to form a class who interprets between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect."
Most school still seem to be running on the old treadmill, intent on creating the class of people Macaulay spoke about, long after they have become irrelevant.
But even as early as the 19th or the 20th century, there were social reformers who started propagating the concept of alternative education, challenging formalized, assessment-driven methods. That strain of thought continues to thrive in small pockets even today, but in general most school still seem to be running on the old treadmill, intent on creating the class of people Macaulay spoke about, long after they have become irrelevant.
In one of the most widely viewed TED Talks of all time, "Do schools kill creativity?", educationist Ken Robinson narrates the stories of schools that improved the quality of education by treating their students as individuals with different learning needs, not as roll numbers to be attached to the same indifferent syllabus. A school called Minddrive in Kansas was able to work wonders with children who had been written off in the rule-book of standardized assessments and achievements—children dubbed as "at-risk" social outlaws. How did they do that? By teaching them real-world skills, such as actually building electric cars and driving them... on the road to their independence.
More recently, Bill Gates has spoken about the future of schooling being driven by the need for personalization in education. Personalization that can truly harness the creative power of children rather than make them grow up to be cookie cutter replicas of each other who will never fit into the new job moulds of tomorrow that we are not even aware of.
Kalpana Pathak, in her book Breaking the Mould: Alternative Education in India, writes about the obvious advantages of alternative schooling—non-comparative assessments, the lack of pressure, especially in the early years, low student-teacher ratio, proximity with nature, focus on developing curiosity. Alternative methods of education, including home-schooling and micro schooling are being debated today even as we read stories of a home-schooled child receiving admission in MIT.
But alternative schooling has at best remained on the margins of the changes in the education system.
Issues faced by alternative schools
Current regulations around setting up of schools as not-for-profit enterprises pushed some education entrepreneurs, who wanted to innovate in education but also to create successful, profitable businesses, to the not so regulated space of online, supplemental learning.
What would really recalibrate the whole system is if universities and jobs start becoming more flexible with the way they admit/hire...
Perceptions of alternative education as being too expensive or too "different" have also kept away parents who would rather send their child to another "spelling bee" test to build his budding resume rather than let him create his own small toy car to nurture his budding interest in mechanics.
Another key issue faced by alternative schools is the integration with mainstream curriculum, especially around the time of the Board exams. Many alternative schools follow the ICSE or the international curriculum. And the pressures of mainstream adoption require even the best alternative schools to gradually replace their sandpits, lack of tests, mixed age group classes with some semblance of curriculum-based assessment for the relevant school board.
Can the testing times end?
Apart from the change in mindset that schools and parents need to develop, what would really recalibrate the whole system is if universities and jobs start becoming more flexible with the way they admit/hire, with acceptance of project portfolios, performance in open source competitions, innovations etc. as criteria for entrance, instead of just board exam results. Only then can innovative methods of education start moving from the "alternative" peripheries into the mainstream.