Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Prior to my arrival in Delhi, I had heard many things about the Indian education system: it was based mainly on rote memorization, with very little creativity; it was teacher-centric; exams were fearsome.  It’s one thing to hear these kinds of things.  It’s another to experience them.  

Still though, I wouldn’t say that my reaction is entirely negative.  Not at all.  In some ways, oddly enough, elements of the Navyug school curriculum actually remind me of Waldorf.  Students have a separate notebook for each subject, which they often decorate with crayons and colored pencils, somewhat like main lesson books.  Everyone is expected to take art and music classes, and, as at Waldorf, P.E. is called “games” here.  Also fun to see are the similarities between Indian and British schools.  As in Harry Potter, my school is divided into four “houses:” Pragati, Ekta, Chetna, and Shakti.  The houses compete against one another in sports events, music competitions, debates, and math bees—sometimes the competition can get fierce!  All students dress in their house colors on Wednesdays and Saturdays for the special sports activities usually held on those days, and it makes a nice change from the pale gray and blue uniforms they usually wear.  Another fun similarity between British and Navyug Schools is the system through which older students help to discipline the younger ones.  As in Harry Potter, my school has prefects, house captains, a head girl, and a head boy.  All wear badges proclaiming their status.

The testing system though.  That is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  So completely different from Waldorf, Haverford, and even the SATs.  Even what I’ve read in Harry Potter—at least Harry had to be able to perform his charms and spells, not simply regurgitate the names for a test.  What frustrates me is the fact that the exams for all the subjects except Hindi and Sanskrit are in English, so many of the kids have no idea what the test is saying.  Because the teachers are under pressure to teach to the test, kids just memorize the answers that they know will appear.  Understanding the meaning of the answer is far less important than getting the right answer.  Many of my more earnest students do try hard to understand the meaning of the dense passages they are asked to read, but many are discouraged.  Thus, memorizing these chains of unfamiliar words is all they can do.

Some students do not have the time or inclination to do this admittedly rather silly task.  And so they cheat.  Some are stealthy about it; others are sloppy.  Either way though, unfortunately, it seems to be completely expected by teachers and students alike.  This week I have been given plenty of “invigilation” (proctoring) duties.  Some groups have been good.  Others have been loud, with students running around the room, and hitting each other.  In every group though, I have caught at least one cheater.

The rules are as follows: if a teacher catches a student copying from another student’s test sheet, he gets ten points deducted from his score.  If a teacher catches a student using a cheat sheet, his answer sheet is confiscated, and he is given a new blank one.

To me, this seems absurdly lenient.  After all, I went to Haverford College, where even an incorrect citation on a paper could result in an Honor Council trial.  At first, I was angry.  It seemed so clear to me: the kids cheat because they can.  If the consequences were harsher, they might think twice before scribbling the answers on their hands or hiding text books in the bathrooms.  Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, the kids cheat because they must; 8th grade science is designed to be challenging for 8th graders—in their native language.  Imagine how impossible it must feel to take a test in a topic that is already difficult, in a language that you can barely understand?

Further complicating things is one particular law that states that no child is allowed to fail a class until 10th standard (10th grade) when children are placed onto tracks (science, commerce, or humanities).  Because my students know that they will pass on to the next grade, no matter how abysmal their test scores are, there is very little incentive to try hard.  This law is the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around.  Yes, it can be humiliating for a child to have to repeat first grade, and even worse to have to repeat 7th grade.  But it’s a whole lot better than passing through to 10th grade, with the reading level of a second grader.

I should note however, that, even as standardized testing is gaining (or at least maintaining) importance in America, people in India are starting to see the flaws in their own system.  While in Hyderabad, I visited a Waldorf School, whose Principal told me that Waldorf schools were gaining in popularity for this very reason.  A Wall Street Journal article discussing the issue was also recently published: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703515504576142092863219826.html       

I realize though, that, for the near future at least, the problem is much, much bigger than I or any of my teachers, or even the New Delhi Municipal Council can do anything about.  It is also extremely complicated and nuanced, and it is extremely presumptuous of me to criticize this system.  So for now, all I can do is watch, learn, and assist as much as I can.  And hopefully my (probably almost absurd-seeming) aversion to cheating and my focus on understanding the meaning of texts will at least be small step towards some kind of change, at least in my school.

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