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Rohit Dhankar, Jan 05, 2015, Deccan Herald

The Zakir Hussain Committee Report (1939) on basic education rightly saw examination system as “a curse to education”. The Commission on Secondary Education (1952) spelled the curse out by pointing out that it dominates education in every aspect from content to teaching and that it becomes the sole motivation for learning.

Today, there is near unanimity that the examination system is in dire need of reform. Therefore, the Right to Education Act (RTE) is justified in emphasising continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE). However, all efforts to change the examination system almost always fail. One wonders why this exam system bounces back every time one tries to reform it. Obviously, there are many reasons. This article briefly hints at one, perhaps the most important, of them.

Examinations and the factory model of schooling

The structure of modern school, brought to India by colonial masters in curriculum, teaching and examination, assumes that knowledge can be organised into discrete packages, each to be mastered independently. Therefore, learning can be organised into grades, and the content of learning in each grade can be separated into subjects like language, mathematics and environmental studies without emphasising interconnections.

The curriculum, therefore, loses its aim of holistic growth and becomes a bag of more or less unrelated units. Once the curriculum is fragmented, the teaching and testing follow suit. Therefore, periodic checks on how much of each of these independent units is memorised becomes the most efficient way of evaluation. This is the birth of an examination system most suitable for a factory model of school. The models of the school and examination support and give life to each other, and are highly management friendly and authoritarian.

The CCE as a possible alternative

What is demanded in CCE is ‘continuity’ and ‘comprehensiveness’ in assessment of learning. Discrete periodic events—however frequent—do not constitute continuity, unless one creates a sham misleading definition. One does not require much analysis to realise that the continuity in evaluation can be achieved only if the teaching itself becomes a process of evaluation for the child as well as for the teacher, and includes an ongoing sensitive response to the child’s learning difficulties and achievements. This is possible; but requires individual attention to each child. Therefore, the teacher needs to know each child, be in a position to make mental note of their learning behaviour in the classroom, needs to know their difficulties and successes individually, and to keep a reliable record of her classroom teaching every day. This, in turn, demands a high teacher pupil ratio, and institutional time for the teacher to plan, prepare and maintain notes. The system recognises none of these demands of CCE or not to the extent it should.

The second aspect in CCE is comprehensiveness, which demands attention not only to the particular concepts being taught, but to situate them in curriculum of the subject, and connect with what is being learnt in all other subjects as well as to the child’s general problem solving behaviour. The teaching, therefore, becomes a highly reflective activity. In addition to scholastic learning, comprehensiveness also demands attention to the child’s attitudes and dispositions. That further increases the demand for time and hard work.

The purpose

The central purpose of CCE is to facilitate better learning for the child. Three-fold variations in any class room can be easily understood: One, the children are likely to learn with different paces. Two, are likely to have different conceptualisations of what is being taught during the process of learning; for example, in their ways of understanding multiplication or how seasons change.

Their paths to achieve a common understanding are likely to differ substantially. Three, children come to class with different levels of preparedness to learn and interest in different subjects. Therefore, the same child may learn faster in one subject while may be slow in another. A suitable pedagogy for CCE has to facilitate learning in all these situations.

Little choice

On the other hand, the system demands that all children in a class complete the curriculum by the end of the session. This leaves very little choice for the teacher but to teach the whole class in a uniform manner. In order to complete, say, the upper primary curriculum in three years the teachers and children need an enormous amount of freedom to plan their work and execute it. The authoritarian system does not allow that.

To take an example, the understanding of child’s knowledge in CCE has to be progressive meaning making which becomes increasingly consistent internally as well as with accepted human knowledge at a given historical juncture. In this understanding, if the child is becoming progressively aware of her own ideas and tries to create coherence in them, it should be considered very good progress. But the year-wise packaged curriculum emphasises conformity, memorisation and reproduction on demand. These two attitudes to knowledge and learning contradict each other. As a result the teaching becomes geared to examination and the intellectually organic progress has to be abandoned.

It is clear, therefore, that the CCE can succeed only if we make the system flexible, change the notion of child’s knowledge, formulate the curriculum as a learning continuum and restructure the school.

Surprising we continuously miss the point that the prevailing examination system is a creature of the structure of school and curriculum; and cannot be reformed without dismantling the authoritarian school. If we still lack the courage to question this structure, CCE will fail; or it will metamorphose into something very akin to the existing examination system; which will serve no good purpose than to kill one more excellent idea in education.