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[A shorter version of this article is published in THE HINDU on 3rd September 2015. it could be accessed here http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/right-to-education-act-beyond-the-passfail-binary/article7608382.ece ]

Rohit Dhankar

The national press is abuzz whether to re-introduce the old pass-fail system or continue with the current automatic promotion (referred to as “no-detention policy”) to the next class brought in in the process of implementation of RTE. The central government is treading cautiously “[i]rrespective of the unanimous outcry for revocation” of no-detention policy and has “decided to get written responses from all State garments”[1]. “Most states in the country … want the Centre to amend the Right to Education Act and revoke its no-detention policy for students of classes I to VIII”, according the state minister of education, Maharashtra[2]. Some educationists, however, see a corporate agenda behind the push to do away with this policy. They think that “The RTE Act clearly spelt out how CCE should be implemented. Just by failing children you do not make them good learners”[3]. The teachers often complaint about no detention and no punishment; as some of them see these two the most effective tools of control over the children; and control, as we all know, is seen as a necessary condition for making the children learn.

Both claims, it seems, have some truth in them; but miss the real issue by a wide margin. Our formal education system has been straddled by the tight grip of exams for more than one and a half century by now. Exams have an unstoppable tendency to become the only motivation for learning, and effectively kill all other motivations. All educated Indians have experienced it, and therefore, are thoroughly conditioned in believing that “no exams, not learning”. This beliefs is easily transferred to the children in a system that has almost no idea of joy of learning in itself. Therefore, the people who believe that children will not learn without the fear of exams have a practical point; even if very untenable from the pedagogical point of view.

The educationists are right when they say that just “by failing children you do not make them good learners”. But they are wrong when they think just by automatic proportion to the next class elementary education can be completed. The often expressed idea that children drop-out because of failure[4] is actually wrong; children drop-out because of non-learning, failure is just the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back. The claim that the “RTE Act clearly spelt out how CCE should be implemented” is plainly wrong; the RTE hardly displays any understanding of CCE; leave out how to implement it.

First, we should note that ‘no-detention policy’ and CCE are very closely connected. Admission in age appropriate class[5] is a third issue which may have complicated the situation in some schools. As according to this provision if a child above the age of six years is either not admitted to school or left school without completing elementary education “he or she will be admitted to a class appropriate to his or her age.” We already know that our children are much behind learning in comparison to what is expected in the curriculum.

In such a complicated situation the only thing no-detention policy can ensure is pretention of completing elementary education without any real learning. However, if we want to understand the educational worth of no-detention we have to take into account three important ideas promoted by RTE simultaneously, they are: admission in age appropriate class (AAAC), continuous and comprehensive evaluation (CCE) and no-detention policy (NDP).

The roots

All three of these ideas come from what could be broadly called the progressive education movement in the West, which has many internal forms and variations; but entered India under the name of Child-centred Education. The slogan of child-centred education is a powerful and alluring one. It talks of the classroom process being guided by the child’s interests and learning through activities. The current pedagogical form promoted in Indian education discourse by the name of constructivism is the pedagogy that suits child-centred education perfectly. Constructivism, like progressive education has many forms. One extreme position is that the teacher should facilitate the children to construct their own knowledge and should apply no criteria for the veracity or appropriateness to their constructed knowledge, as all knowledge is a result of individual experiences and meaning making. A more modest form is to start from where the child is and help her actively engage in making meaning through constructing concepts and forming relationships between them; but the goal remains to arrive at the knowledge generally accepted today.

These ideas demand that the children work together in collaboration with each other and progress in rational enquiry in a free atmosphere. It is assumed that interaction and collaboration with children of similar age will help them better in this progressive meaning making. Therefore, AAAC. Similarly, children progress with varied speeds and not necessarily through the same conceptual routes; therefore, one periodic examination on fixed questions for all becomes inappropriate and leaves much of the child’s progress in scholastic as well as moral and emotional development un-assessed. Hence, CCE. Since children progress as per their own speed, which is necessary for conceptual clarity through their own engagement of mind, there is no point in pass-fail in classes. This will only artificially bunch children together. Therefore, NDP.

The three ideas are closely connected through assumptions regarding knowledge, human learning and child’s nature. They are complementary to each other and can only work in any education system if taken together seriously. Separating them and adopting any one leaving the others out will not work.

Deep contradiction

If we accept the assumptions underlying AAAC, CCE and NDP then the organisation of the curriculum and the structure of the school will have to undergo a fundamental changes. The curriculum and syllabi will have to assume a “learning continuum” rather than a “learning ladder”. A continuum imagines a curve of learning which might be an individual path taken by each child and which does not necessarily have any time-bound fixed milestones. The knowledge, skills and values in the curriculum and syllabus may be organised sequentially where need be, but no year-wise rigid packaging can be admitted.

In learning ladder, on the other hand, the curriculum and syllabus are neatly organised in yearly packages, which we call grades or classes, to be learnt in one year. Examinations may come during the year and as many of them as one likes, but results are finally aggregated at the end and decision on whether sufficient learning has happened or not is expressed in the form of a pass or fail. In case of failure the whole chunk has to be learnt again; in case of pass no further opportunity to strengthen learning in the already covered areas is supposed to be needed.

Organising curriculum in the form of learning continuum will immediately contradict the grade-wise structure of the school. Since learning is supposed to be continuous, no rigid year wise division is made; putting children into different grades and pass-fail kind of examination system becomes redundant as well as an impediment to the process of teaching-learning. The only form of assessment that can serve the purpose is CCE then.

Now, our education system is profoundly authoritarian. The idea of progressive creation of knowledge by the child directly contradicts the idea of knowledge as finished product enshrined in the textbook. The grade-wise organisation of curriculum goes very well with this idea of knowledge, as any finished product can be neatly packages in manageable chunks. The class-wise structure of the school is an administrator’s delight; as it can be used for simple delineation of tasks for teachers and students. And the pass-fail examination system is a natural logical outcome of these ideas of knowledge, learning, curriculum and school.

This is the contradiction between an outmoded authoritarian system and a more enlightened idea of education that is being played out in the form of introduction and then clamour for removal of CCE and NDP. CCE and NDP simply cannot be meaningfully implemented unless we challenge and dismantle the authoritarian education system.

Lacking in courage or understanding?

All the three ideas of CCE, NDP and AAAC are theoretically sound and practically proven. They are much better for quality education than what we have today as fixed grades and pass-fail examinations. That is what makes the current antagonism to NDP barking-up the wrong tree. The fault lies in the authoritarian structure of the school, not in NDP.

But in India we have a history of attempting to introduce half understood ideas without proper preparation in terms of institutional structures and personnel capacity building. The DPEP kind of child-centrism, ideas of BRC/CRC and the farce called annual in-service teacher training are examples. Now this is the time to discredit another educationally sound idea of NDP, and we are busy doing precisely that.

Expecting education administrators to understand the CCE and NDP properly would be a pipe dream. But what of the educationists who advise on policies like RTE? Do they lack the understanding of the sophistication and interconnectedness of these proposed educational reforms? Or do they lack the courage to suggest the above mentioned contradiction, and therefore, dismantling of the authoritarian structure of school? At present we are discussing new education policy for the nation. The issue of a more enlightened vision of education and school should have been in the centre of this discussion. One is dismayed to note that those who are guiding the policy debates seem to have no awareness of this dire need of our education system. And therefore, we will continue basking-up the wrong tree.

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[1] The Hindu, in “Govt. treads warily on RTE amendment” dated 21st August 15.

[2] The Hindu BusinessLine, in “States want revocation of no-detention policy in schools”, 21st August 15

[3] The Hindu, in “Panel for phased implementation of no-detention policy in schools”, 18th August 15.

[4] The Hindu BusinessLine, in “States want revocation of no-detention policy in schools”, 21st August 15

[5] RTE section 4.